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Malaysia: Southeast Asia's hidden gem

May 30, 2022
7 min read
Colorful Hindu Temple in Batu Cave, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Malaysia: Southeast Asia's hidden gem
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Southeast Asia is a backpacker’s and luxury traveler’s paradise all at once. The region is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world due to its affordability, delicious eats, and boasts of options for all types of travelers. When making plans to visit Southeast Asia, most travelers head to the popular hotspots of Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, and maybe even Cambodia. But it’s a missed opportunity to head all the way to these parts of the world and not visit a true hidden gem of Southeast Asia: Malaysia.

To get to Malaysia, it’s likely that you’ll fly to the capital of Kuala Lumpur. Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KUL) is a major hub with connecting flights to all over the globe, so finding a flight convenient for your needs should pose no issue.

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(Image provided by Grab)

Related: 6 ways I could use my Malaysia AIrlines Enrich Points before they expire

Once you exit the airport, you’ll have to head into the city which can be done either via bus or taxi. If you plan to take a taxi, download the app Grab, which is an Uber-like app in Southeast Asia (Grab works in Vietnam as well). Despite Malaysia being an affordable destination similar to other nations in the region, one sure-fire way to get ripped off is by taking an airport taxi instead of Grab. For context, I made this mistake, and my airport taxi cost 255 Malaysian Ringgit (MYR) or $58 and a Grab would have been 75 MYR OR $17.

Now, where to stay? Kuala Lumpur is a luxurious city that has the ritzy feels of Dubai, but at a fraction of the cost. You can opt for a sky-rise hotel or Airbnb in the city center with a rooftop pool overlooking the Petronas Towers, often for as low as $40 per night. If you’ve always wanted a private butler but don’t have enough points or funds to pay for one, The Ritz-Carlton in Kuala Lumpur might just be the fast track to your dreams, with rooms starting at $106 per night or 60,000 Marriott Bonvoy points for a 2-night stay.

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Patronas Towers. (Photo by Kaityln Rosati)

Make sure to hit the Batu Caves, just a short ride outside of the city. This is the temple with the infamous rainbow steps plastered all over Instagram, but don’t only go for getting the perfect shot. At the top of the 272 steps is a Hindu temple in an actual cave, hence the name. Expect to see monkeys along the way and even a small waterfall. Before you head back into the city center, make sure to grab a masala dosa from one of the many Indian restaurants in the area. Batu Caves gets extremely packed due to its popularity, so it’s recommended to get there as early as possible to avoid the crowds.

(Batu Caves, photo by Kaitlyn Rosati)



Colorful steps at Batu Caves. (Photo by Kaitlyn Rosati)

Kuala Lumpur also has a bustling Chinatown. Here, you’ll find several street food carts serving up bowls of spicy noodles, such as chili pan mee or curry mee, for less than $1 a pop. If you’re looking for a treat unique to the region, go for the gold and try durian, the stinky fruit that’s been banned on several forms of transportation around the globe. You’ll even see restaurants that have signs that say “No Durians” due to its smell resembling that of dirty gym socks.

Chinatown, Kuala Lumpur. (Photo by Kaitlyn Rosati)


Related: Why you should take your family on a vacation to Malaysia

In many parts of Kuala Lumpur, but particularly Chinatown, you can score some cheap souvenirs for yourself including sunglasses, clothes, makeup and more. Don’t go too far out of your way looking for alcohol though. Malaysia’s official religion is Islam, and though alcohol is not banned, it’s not as readily available as it is in other countries in the region. Finding a good cocktail or glass of vino near the Petronas Towers isn’t the most difficult task, but in Chinatown and other popular neighborhoods, options to grab a cold one will be fewer and farther between and might make a dent in your wallet.


(Chili Pan Mee, photo by Kaitlyn Rosati)

Why stop at only Kuala Lumpur? Malaysia has some of the best beaches in Southeast Asia without the crowds of those in Thailand. The climate year-round is humid and hot, so adding a beach to your Malaysian itinerary only makes sense. Head to Langkawi and stay at an all-inclusive resort in Pantai Tengah. Borneo, though divided by three countries (Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia) has some of the best diving in the region. Sipadan Island off the coast of Sabah, Borneo, was once voted the top diving spot in the entire world by Scuba Diving Magazine’s Gold List. Expect to see manta rays, turtles and even some sharks.


(Photo by Kaitlyn Rosati)


Related: A Stunning Hotel with Service to Match: A Review of The St. Regis Langkawi in Malaysia


No trip to Malaysia would be complete without a visit to the northern region of Penang. Penang has the best of both worlds: white sand, crystal-clear water beaches, and a buzzing city, George Town, with cheap eats, temples galore and rich history. Head to Kek Lok Si Temple, the largest Buddhist temple in the entire country. Do some bargain-shopping and late-night eats at Batu Ferringhi Night Market. Learn about indigenous Malay flora and fauna, and take a cooking class using local ingredients at the Tropical Spice Garden. When you’ve had enough of the city, head out to an overwater bungalow at Lexis Hibiscus Port Dickson, starting at $194/night, a mere fraction of what a similar experience would cost you in the Maldives. Make sure while in Penang to grab a bite of Nasi Lemak, a fragrant coconut rice dish served with fried anchovies, peanuts and sambal, said to be the national dish of Malaysia.

So, who should consider a trip to Malaysia? Everyone! Solo travelers, families, foodies, backpackers, thrill-seekers and couples. Malaysia has something for everyone.

Related: Why you should take your family on a vacation to Malaysia

Overall, Malaysia is an affordable, colorful destination with some of the best food and beaches in the region. It’s easily accessible from other nearby nations, so what’s stopping you from adding it to your Southeast Asian bucket list?

Featured image by Getty Images
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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  • For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
  • Earn 1 Point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Annual Hotel Savings Benefit
  • 80,000 Points are redeemable for $800 in gift cards when redeemed at thankyou.com
  • No expiration and no limit to the amount of points you can earn with this card
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Best starter travel card
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
Go to review

Rewards Rate

3XEarn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
3XEarn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
1XEarn 1 Point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Intro Offer
    For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening

    Earn 80,000 ThankYou® points
    60,000 points
  • Annual Fee

    $95
  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    670-850
    Excellent, Good

Why We Chose It

The Citi Premier’s 3 points per dollar spent across a wide range of popular categories is one of the more lucrative offerings in the world of points and miles. The Citi Premier comes with a $95 annual fee and is currently offering a solid sign up bonus of 80,000 points after you spend $4,000 on purchases within the first three months. It also has some valuable transfer partners to make the most of your rewards. Add in access to Citi Entertainment plus a $100 hotel credit for any single-stay hotel booking that exceeds $500 or more, excluding taxes and fees, booked through the Citi travel website, there are few reasons why the Citi Premier should not be in every traveler’s wallet.

Pros

  • Earns 3x points on restaurants, supermarkets, gas stations, air travel and hotels.
  • $100 annual hotel savings benefit (on single hotel stay bookings of $500 or more, excluding taxes and fees, booked through thankyou.com)
  • Points transfer to 16 airline programs, from JetBlue to Virgin Atlantic.
  • World Elite Mastercard benefits, extended warranty, damage and theft protection.

Cons

  • $95 annual fee
  • Lacks travel protections that other travel rewards cards come with
  • For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
  • Earn 1 Point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Annual Hotel Savings Benefit
  • 80,000 Points are redeemable for $800 in gift cards when redeemed at thankyou.com
  • No expiration and no limit to the amount of points you can earn with this card
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees on purchases