We were exceptionally fortunate that at our second destination (Kota Kinabalu), we had incredible AirBnb hosts who invited us out a few times, a small neighborhood of very friendly people, and a wonderful community of fellow game developers, who we met with weekly! (Detailed blog post on these experiences here.)
It absolutely feels like leaving a home, because of the community and experiences we had in KK, and this is the first time the pull to stay almost outweighs the excitement over seeing a new city and country. (And next up is Bali, Indonesia, which we’re excited to see!)
It’s hard to believe we knew so little about Malaysia before coming here, and now it’s hard for us to leave!
We split our time between Kuala Lumpur (commonly referred to as KL) and Kota Kinabalu (aka KK), an oceanside city on the island of Borneo (the 3rd largest island in the world, also encompassing part of Indonesia and the small country of Brunei).
I was so inspired by our stay in Kota Kinabalu that I’m making a jungle trekking, simulation game called In the Heart of Borneo!
Follow In the Heart of Borneo:
Also check out Manne’s game, a taco shooter game coming to Steam in 2018!
Follow El Taco Diablo:
When we came to Kuala Lumpur back in December, we weren’t 100% certain where we would travel next. We actually had a ticket booked back to Thailand, but we quickly fell in love with Malaysia and decided to spend the full length of our visa here. I absolutely wouldn’t mind staying in Malaysia permanently!
I hope this changes someday because it quickly became one of my favorite countries on our travels (although I’ve loved every country we’ve been to so far :)). We were floored by the diversity, architecture, nature and sights of this incredible country.
Like Vietnam, Malaysia has a very straightforward visa process for Swedes and Americans (compared to other countries we visited in the region). We didn’t even have to prepare any paperwork or payment for a visa-on-arrival! We simply received a 3 month tourist visa on entering the country. We love the fact that the tourist visa is so flexible and hassle-free!
(To compare, for a Thai 3 month tourist visa, we had to visit a consulate before entering Thailand to receive approval for 2 months and then go to another office while in Thailand to extend for another month. Likewise, for 2 months in Indonesia, we need to visit an embassy while in the country to extend beyond the initial one month. We’ve been to a lot of embassies and consulates lately!)
Kuala Lumpur (KL)
The capital of Malaysia, KL is a big city, with many different areas, but it doesn’t feel as overwhelmingly huge as many other capitals. It’s doable to walk to nearby areas and with the fantastic public transportation system, it doesn’t take too long to get from one side of the city to the other.
We were impressed with KL overall – such a variety of food (Malay, Chinese, Indian, Middle Eastern), cultures and religions (Buddhist, Muslim, Christian); the fast, easy-to-use public transportation; the incredible architecture.
KL has many different neighborhoods. We lived in a predominantly Indian neighborhood and close to a Chinese area. Downtown also has a small Chinatown and Middle Eastern area – Ain Arabia – which is apparently meant to encourage more tourists from the Middle East. (Tourist initiatives state that the goal is to attract 1 million tourists from the Middle East by 2020. In Thailand, we also saw a movement toward attracting tourists from the Middle East’s large middle class.)
There are also some amazing places not too far away that we unfortunately didn’t have a chance to make it to, such as the oceanside, Portuguese settlement Malacca.
I was in awe by many of the buildings we saw in KL. The design is simply amazing, both beautiful and functional.
Places We Recommend in KL
I mentioned in the above section that this area is meant to attract more tourists from the Middle East. You can get an excellent (and relatively cheap) shawarma here and try a variety of other Middle Eastern foods.
We also enjoyed a Middle Eastern restaurant closeby Chinatown.
Masjid Jamek Area
This entire area is really interesting to walk around.
Chinatown (Jalan Petaling/Petaling Street), Central Market, a little India market area, a beautiful mosque (Masjid Jamek) and some amazing buildings (at Merdeka Square) are all in this area.
Perdana Botanical Gardens Area
I’m not sure what this entire park area is called, but KL has a massive park with many different places to see – the National Mosque, the Islamic Arts Museum, a planetarium, a butterfly park, a huge open bird park, Botanical Gardens and National Museum of Malaysia. We barely scratched the surface of sightseeing here, so we have plenty to go back and see.
Muzium Kesenian Islam Malaysia (Islamic Arts Museum)
One place we did make it to was the Islamic Arts Museum, which became one of my favorite museums and is actually the largest museum of Islamic Arts in SE Asia. I’m really glad we had the chance to go there.
We learned about the different styles of writing in Arabic and about the Qur’an Belt in China. The displays feature illuminated Qur’an, armour, glassware, miniatures of mosques around the world, pictures of the devastation the war has caused to landmarks in the Middle East.
Wow! We went here on a Sunday, just before a significant Hindu festival, so the Batu Caves were extremely lively (in addition to the surrounding area, complete with a huge market full of food and goods stands).
There were musicians and huge lines of people climbing the stairs. While I generally don’t prefer huge crowds, it absolutely added to the environment here!
Kota Kinabalu (KK)
KK quickly felt like a second home. It even has a vibrant and growing game development community (special blog post on this here!).
It is an oceanside city, with many small islands nearby (an easy 15+ minutes by speedboat to fantastic island beaches, snorkeling, diving, etc.!) and national parks with hiking and caves in a mountainous region (just 1+hours away from KK by bus), with much cooler weather and areas that reminded us of New Zealand, plus ample amounts of jungle!
I couldn’t have imagined a place with such diverse wildlife before coming to Borneo. We took a river cruise tour with the Amazing Borneo tour group (a fantastic company for booking tours!) and saw proboscis monkeys, long-tailed macaques and fireflies. The region also has orangutans, rhinos, elephants, crocodiles, hornbills, etc. According to WWF, each month in Borneo, 3 new species are discovered on average.
A highlight of KK is Mount Kinabalu – an enormous mountain you can see from down in KK and a popular mountain to hike.
Since the Philippines is so close to KK (even closer than KK is to Kuala Lumpur!), KK sees a lot of immigrants from the Philippines. I’m not sure, but I think we saw some of the Filipino influence in a dessert we tried at KK’s main beach, Tanjung Aru. I have no idea what the below dessert is called, but the mix of sweet corn, shaved ice, jellies and other food stuff reminded me of the Filipino dessert, halo-halo. KK also has a Filipino market, plus night market.
The downtown area of KK is rather small. Before our game development meetups, we often started at an oceanside mall on the opposite side of the city’s width. It only took about 15 minutes to walk the width. The downtown area can get some pretty heavy traffic, but the city is nice overall, with a few small parks, outdoor shops/stands, malls, beachside bars and restaurants…even a hill with monkeys! (We discovered trees full of monkeys up there by accident!)
Places We Recommend in KK/Borneo
I mentioned a few of these above already, so here’s a quick list:
Mount Kinabalu/Kinabalu Park
Even if you don’t hike the mountain itself, I absolutely recommend heading up into the mountains to see Mount Kinabalu up close and while getting a reprieve from the heat of KK. There are some nice hiking trails inside Kinabalu Park.
Desa Dairy Farm (pretty close to Kinabalu Park)
It makes for a quick visit and has exceptionally nice scenery, reminding us of parts of New Zealand. There are even a few young cows you can see up close.
The Jungle Canopy at Poring Hot Springs
The jungle canopy itself is fairly small, but it’s an experience to walk on the small bridges in the jungle treetops! I also highly recommend the bat caves in this area (bring water for the small hike up the hill!). Aside from a tree in Siem Reap, Cambodia, I’d never seen that many bats in one place before.
Klia River Cruise
As mentioned above, an excellent place to see some of the local wildlife – a few species of monkeys, a crocodile if you’re lucky and fireflies.
We actually didn’t have a chance to make it over here while we were in KK, but we’ve heard incredible things about the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre and Bornean Sun Bear Conversation Centre. (The flight from KK to Sepilok is short and cheap.)
We hiked around the jungle on Sapi Island to a fairly secluded beach with amazing snorkeling – including lots of rainbow fish, blue starfish (very different than other starfish we’ve seen before, such as the starfish at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California), clownfish (these fish are hilarious! they actually do behave like the fish in Finding Nemo, darting into and out of sea anemone). The front side of the island becomes packed with tourists, so I don’t recommend that area, unless you like a lot of activity.
We were lucky enough to see a hornbill on our way back through the jungle! Sapi Island also allows camping and has a zipline across to a nearby island.
KK has plenty of other islands to explore, including an island where turtles lay their eggs and you can watch the young turtles go out into the water and Manukan Island – a popular island with overnight resorts.
From what we read, every region of Malaysia is very distinct, with some regions having greater influence from certain cultures or religions.
We can’t wait to visit Malaysia again someday and see even more! (The tea plantations in the Cameron Highlands sound incredible.)
We picked up pieces of Malay much faster than other languages, thanks to a familiar alphabet and words that seemed fairly intuitive to pronounce.
Actually, you already know a word in Malay (and Indonesian, which has many words in common with Malay)! Orangutan! Orangutan is a Malay word, meaning “forest person,” coming from the word “orang” (for person) and “hutan” (for forest). So, you basically know 3 words in Malay already!
We happened to watch an Indonesian movie while in Malaysia, and we were shocked to hear familiar words. As it turns out, there is a fair amount of overlap in vocabulary between Indonesian and Malay! There are regional differences in pronunciation, grammar, etc., reminding us of Scandinavian language (Swedish, Norwegian and Danish), which are also mutually intelligible, but with significant pronunciation differences (even within one Scandinavian country). It will be interesting to experience some of the similarities and differences when we head down to Bali this week.
(Compared to Malay, Vietnamese was a little harder to pick up since many words are short, and we weren’t sure how to pronounce certain combinations of letters, and Thai has a different alphabet, in addition to being a tonal language. The Khmer language in Cambodia, also has a completely different alphabet. We were pleasantly surprised to pick up words much faster in Malaysia.)
From people we spoke to in Malaysia, it sounded like schools generally teach Malay, English and a third language (such as Chinese, if at a Chinese Malay school). Nearly everyone we spoke to had excellent English skills, so there unfortunately wasn’t too much of a need to learn the language. Some people didn’t seem to care if we used the Malay word for thank you – terima kasih – but some people were excited when we did.
As I mentioned above, we loved the public transportation system in KL. We rarely had to wait more than a couple minutes for a train (an above ground monorail of sorts, actually). It was only packed in some areas, such as between popular malls and commuting areas.
We mostly used Grab in Kota Kinabalu (Asia’s version of Uber), which was cheap and convenient, although we navigated the bus system to venture into the mountains. It was a breeze to use and really comfortable, especially compared to buses we use in other parts of Asia (they even played a movie – The Mummy remake – on the way up).
We easily flagged down the bus to get back down the mountain, as we’d seen others do on the way up.
When we come to a new country, it’s interesting to learn if people are familiar with where we’re from.
Vietnam doesn’t seem to get many Swedish tourists, whereas Thailand has lots…even to the extent where some shopowners learn a little Swedish and restaurants offer menus in Swedish and other Scandinavian languages.
In Malaysia, when Manne mentioned he is from Sweden, people spoke excitedly about Sweden’s football (soccer) player Zlatan Ibrahimović. We didn’t expect that reaction! In the US, people commonly mix Sweden up with Switzerland and don’t necessarily realize IKEA is a Swedish company. (So much for the global fame of Swedish meatballs!)
People knew about the US/California, although Malaysia isn’t an overly popular place for American tourists overall. So far, we’ve only come across Americans in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Many other countries in SE Asia region receive visitors from Australia, other parts of Asia, and some tourists from the UK and France, depending on the country.
Our first day or two in Kuala Lumpur, it felt like people were staring at us, a lot, which was disconcerting initially. This happened in our neighborhood, a predominantly Indian neighborhood. We heard from other travelers that in India, people openly stare at Westerners, so that may be why, but we aren’t sure. We received less stares after spending a little more time in the neighborhood, probably just because the area has so few Westerners. There were plenty of tourists from other parts of Asia who stayed in the hotel closeby us. The times we saw Westerners were mostly downtown.
We lived in a mysig (cozy, as they would say in Sweden) neighborhood in KK, with many small shops and restaurants lining the entry street. While we didn’t receive random handshakes and high fives as we did in Vietnam, people were generally interested in seeing us.
When we went jogging in the mornings, people smiled and sometimes said hello (there weren’t too many other joggers in the neighborhood). At the smaller stores, cashiers sometimes asked where we were from.
People were very friendly overall. It was only at the Filipino market downtown where people were exceptionally curious of us and stared more, with one shopowner randomly filming a selfie-Live video on her phone with me as I walked by.
Being a Tourist in Malaysia Vs. Other Countries in Southeast Asia
In other countries, taxi drivers can be extremely persistent, with drivers waiting every few meters (or honking at you), asking if you want a ride.
Also, in other countries, it often feels like stall owners at markets aren’t giving you the space to look around, instead shoving items at you and asking you to buy immediately.
Likewise, it is common in tourist areas of Thailand for tailors to persistently ask about buying a nice suit or dress. We were also stopped by a very nice lady in Hoi An, Vietnam, who, at first just seemed interested in us as people, but it quickly turned into a tailor pressure-to-buy scenario.
It didn’t take long in other countries before we were conditioned to stop responding to these persistent requests.
Malaysia had none of this, which was amazing! Even among the tourist stalls at Kota Kinabalu’s Filipino market, people didn’t pressure us to buy. Every once in a while, a taxi driver asked if we wanted a taxi, but it wasn’t overwhelming (and constant), the way we experienced elsewhere.
For that reason, it felt more comfortable to walk around KL and KK than tourist areas of Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia. (It’s another reason Western tourists should consider Malaysia for future travels!)
The only exception to a lack of pressure to buy is the outdoor food courts (although if you say no, people leave you alone, which is very different than other countries!). We were shocked the first time we entered a food court in KK, and small group of people descended on us with menus, asking us if we wanted a coconut, fish, etc.
We learned it was something we should expect, so it wasn’t as alarming the second time it happened. I probably would have walked around the food court more to check out what the different stalls offered if I wasn’t constantly asked to buy something. (It was much easier just to sit down, with people coming to you.)
Pork, Alcohol & Cigarettes
It was interesting apartment hunting in KK in particular. Many apartments ban pork and alcohol. Restaurants often include a sign in front stating that they are a pork-free establishment.
Alcohol is priced higher than Thailand and Vietnam. Behind Norway and Singapore, Malaysia has the 3rd highest alcohol tax globally.
The prevalence of cigarettes surprised us. It’s especially noticeable on exiting a building such as a mall, with sizable groups of people smoking just outside. We were also surprised that smoking is generally okay inside restaurants, with many restaurants including ashtrays on the table. Nearly 25% of the population smokes, and a large percentage of Chinese tourists we came across smoke. (More noticeable because it’s common for Chinese tourists to be in large tour groups across Asia, traveling in huge buses.)
We lived in a mostly abandoned mall in KL (sounds strange, I know – it was pretty cool!).
The building was like the shell of a mall, with old advertising still present in some areas. It has an active event space inside (mostly used for weddings), which is very active and aside from that, there were a smattering of restaurants and stores on the perimeter of the ground floor. Mostly, the building was just used for people passing through to the public transportation system.
It was interesting how much activity there was surrounding this abandoned mall, with little actually left inside the mall.
There quite a few abandoned construction projects and completed malls in KL, with articles attributing it to Asia’s financial crisis of the ‘90s and other stating it has to do with private business backers not necessarily considering the current state of the consumer market.
Games in Malaysia
The Game Development Scene
I wrote up a detailed article on our experiences with the KL and KK game development scenes. Golden Moose Collective gave a presentation, participated in a game jam and even taught an “Intro to Unity3D” workshop! Check it out!
Malaysia has a large game development community. KL even has a large gamedev conference in the fall, called Level Up.
We saw multiple video game stores in KK’s malls – one right next to the other!
One of our Grab drivers mentioned he plays PUBG a lot. : ) (We saw a lot of people playing it at PC cafes in Thailand as well.)
Steam Ban of 2017
Back in the fall, Malaysia made global gaming news for temporarily blocking Steam to ban religious fighting game Fight of Gods. To be honest, we were surprised by the ban back when it was enforced but after spending time in Malaysia, it makes more sense.
(It feels awkward to read some of the articles about this decision, particularly the publisher’s quote, “We are disappointed that such freedom of choice is not given to everyone…”, alongside the explanation from Malaysia’s Minister of Communication & Multimedia, “(To ensure) solidarity, harmony and wellbeing of the multi-racial and multi-religious people in the country are the main objectives of the government.”)
Check out this Wikipedia page on “Religion in Malaysia” – Malaysia is incredibly diverse, culturally and religiously. There are mosques, Hindu temples, Buddhist temples and Christian churches in many areas of Malaysia.
According to the Wikipedia breakdown:
- 61.3% of the population practices Islam
- 19.8% Buddhism
- 9.2% Christianity
- 6.3% Hinduism
- 1.3% traditional Chinese religions
There has generally been religious tolerance in Malaysia, with special groups set up to promote religious understanding. I know opinions on this differ, but if, as a country, the goal is to promote religious tolerance, why undercut efforts by introducing a game into the market that is specifically about playing deities fighting one another?
In Thailand, there are signs specifically for tourists, educating foreigners on improper depictions of the Buddha and behavior (no tattoos of the Buddha, don’t point your feet toward the Buddha, don’t try to ship Buddha images out of Thailand). Respect for local religions matters globally.
Unsurprisingly, the game was also banned in Thailand, though to far less Western press coverage than Malaysia’s ban.
Game Market Statistics
As I mentioned in my previous blog posts for Korea and Vietnam, I do freelance work for game localization and publishing company LAI Global Game Services, and, as part of that work, I research and write about the details of the global game market. Last year, I updated LAI’s pages on Malaysia’s game market.
- Malaysia is the 3rd largest games market in Southeast Asia (SE Asia has a $1.5 billion game software market size overall).
- Revenue from mobile games ($110 million) alone nearly equate to Greece’s entire game market ($112 million).
- There is significant growth in console games, which resulted Malaysia’s own PlayStation Experience event last year.
- eSports is huge! Malaysia even gained its first eSports Academy for pro-gamers in 2017!
Food was a little more expensive than what we were used to in Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, but, compared to the West, it isn’t bad. In Thailand, a meal was about $1USD. In Malaysia, it’s roughly double…but, compare that to the West (where a restaurant meal can be $10-$15USD), and you’re looking at 5-7 Malaysian meals for the price of a meal in the West.
As is the case with many other travelers/digital nomads, soon into our travels, we started eating mostly vegetarian. We’d learned about the health benefits of being vegetarian…plus, we didn’t get sick from food like we sometimes did when eating meat abroad.
It would probably be pretty tough to maintain a vegetarian diet in Malaysia, unless you specifically stayed at a place with vegetarian options closeby. We were generally lucky to find restaurants that had vegetable dishes in Malaysia. Many restaurants have large portions of meat, with either rice or noodles. An exception was a fantastic Buddhist, Chinese buffet we found in KL.
“Mee” just means noodles. I don’t know what sauces they add to it, but mee goreng is awesome.
Nasi goreng is a staple of Malaysia…and Indonesia. The Wikipedia page says it’s fried rice with other food items, but when everytime we ordered it in KL, it was generally white rice with fried chicken.
Fried chicken is very popular in Malaysia. In fact, some of the Indian places even had fried chicken that tasted very similar to KFC’s chicken.
Which brings us to KFC. It sometimes felt like KFC was an official sponsor of Malaysia! It’s everywhere, with multiple locations up the mountains! Manne was excited about this, because KFC hasn’t come to Sweden yet, and everytime we’ve seen it in another country, I didn’t want to have it, opting for local food instead.
KFC delivers in Malaysia and has some localized dishes. There was a porridge breakfast dish, fried rice/fried chicken bowl, and mushroom soup (which I think is a localized dish?). Even when we looked at the Pizza Hut menu, it was possible to get mushroom soup with just about everything. So far, I haven’t seen this in any other country, so I guess mushroom soup is pretty common here?
We were severely confused the first time we went into an Indian restaurant in Malaysia. There was a buffet-like setup, but waiters also come around to take your order…It took us a while to get the hang of. They kindly gave us silverware (it’s common to eat curry and rice with your fingers with Indian food).
It was a different experience than going to an Indian restaurant in the West or in Vietnam (we went to our fair share of Indian restaurants in Vietnam!). We were shocked by the price on our first night in KL – roughly $3 total, for 2 people (including naan and multiple curries with rice)!
Middle Eastern Food
I actually never had shawarma until I came to Malaysia. Absolutely incredible food. (The closest I’d come was kebabs, which are one of the most popular foods in Sweden.)
So good! In Thailand, it’s usually a dessert. In Malaysia, it’s something you can order with a meal. Here’s a link with the many different ways to eat roti throughout Southeast Asia!
I was shocked to see this treat in Malaysia…because it looks exactly like a Norwegian cookie – krumkake! I learned this has to do with semprong’s Dutch roots. The semprong we tried didn’t taste like krumkake (not sweet and a completely different flavor overall), but it was pretty cool to see a familiar Scandinavian treat (apart from those in IKEA) all the way over in Malaysia!
Teh (Tea) Tarik
Teh Tarik is amazing (literally “pulled tea”). We tried it our first day or two on arriving in Malaysia and were surprised by the flavor.
Initially, I thought it tasted like a cross between hot chocolate and Thai tea (which doesn’t sound like a combination that would work, but it absolutely does).
Now that we’re used to it (we’ve had it almost every day since being in Malaysia, even though we probably shouldn’t!), it just tastes like teh tarik. : )
I actually found the same brand on Amazon that we have here, which I sent to my family. It isn’t as sweet as the one you get at restaurants (made with condensed milk), but it’s pretty good.
This was another surprising one. I was curious by the name, thinking it might be some sort of Chai drink.
I was so very, very wrong! It has a salty, lime taste (which may sound strange, and it was absolutely surprising at first). It quickly grew on me. I’m not sure if it’s a drink that is common elsewhere. I can’t find much information about it online. It’s too bad though, because I’d love to get Kit Chai in other countries.
It’s apparently made with limes, sugar syrup, water and Chinese salted sour plums.
This drink also surprised me! I, again, had no idea what I was getting myself into when I ordered Air Bandung the first time.
According to Wikipedia, it’s an adaptation of rose milk in India and is also common in Brunei and Singapore. It’s good, and has a slight syrup flavor.
Thanks for Reading!
We thoroughly enjoyed our time in Malaysia and can’t wait to go back someday.
Let us know what you found interesting about this article below or tell us which parts of Malaysia are your favorite!