When it comes to dream destinations, Southeast Asia is high on many American's travel wish lists. Whether it's the beautiful beaches, exclusive overwater bungalows, exotic wildlife, or just the food, Southeast Asia has a lot to offer any traveler. So why does the destination remain so out of reach for many? Well, there's the issue of getting there, paying for your stay, communicating in a foreign tongue, and ultimately, somehow managing to stay out of debt from a single trip.
But here's the thing: After you pay for the (we'll admit) pricey plane tickets to get there, Malaysia is the best Southeast Asia bargain destination. You may not have considered this exotic country for your dream trip before (I definitely hadn't), but here's why you should reconsider this up-and-coming destination.
Getting the bill at a restaurant, souvenir shop, or tourist attraction might be shocking upon first glance. But once you get used to the idea that one ringgit (the Malaysian currency) is roughly 30 cents in U.S. dollars – so $1 is 3RM (ringgit) – you won't be bothered by it. Now consider that most things are priced like dollars, or cheaper – in other words, a $20 entree in the U.S. is around 20RM in Malaysia. As an example, to ride the metro in Kuala Lumpur, it's around 1.20RM (depending on your destination), or about 40 cents. Some of the most luxe five-star hotels in the city (for instance the historic Hotel Majestic and the deluxe Royale Chulan Kuala Lumpur) have starting rates of around $100/night – to put that into perspective, a five-star hotel in New York City could you put you out anywhere from $400 to $900/night.
Popular tourist destinations like Thailand, Indonesia, and Singapore see millions of tourists pass through each year. And while Malaysia ushers large numbers as well (next year, they're aiming to welcome 28 million visitors), the tourist attractions, big cities, and beautiful beaches aren't bursting at the seams with foreigners. Maybe it's because there isn't an urgency for everyone to hurry anywhere, or maybe it's just because there's so much to see that everyone is spread out across the country. Regardless, the only time you'll feel overwhelmed in KL – the country's biggest city – is if you decide to take the metro during rush hours (though, that is quite fun to get a truly Asian experience). But, when you head to important tourist attraction around the country like Batu Caves, just outside of KL, you won't wait in any lines or bump elbows with obnoxious tourists eager to move on to the next destination.
Forget about studying up on every Malaysian word and phrase in the book: Every Malaysian is taught two languages in school; their local Malay, and English. In other words, everyone from tour guides to restaurant owners and even the most off-the-beaten-track shop owner can speak near-perfect English. Of course, everyone is incredibly excited if you do know a few words in their language so make sure you know these two phrases: "terima kasih" (tah-reema kas-ay) is thank you and "sama sama" (exactly how it looks) is same same, or you're welcome. You're almost guaranteed to get a big smile from the person you're speaking to if you at least try to say something in their language – however broken it may be.
Another thing you'll notice right away? The incredible quality of highways and roads. We take advantage of our well-paved roads in the U.S. and are often disappointed, and surprised, when we don't find the same thing elsewhere. While there are multiple tolls on each road, remember that it's because of those toll booths that Malaysia's network of public roads is so great. Well-marked road signs will make you feel right at home, despite them being in Malaysian (but also in English). One thing to keep in mind, in Malaysia you do drive on the left side of the road like England (it was once a British colony, after all).
Here's something I didn't know before my trip to Malaysia: It is truly a melting pot of different cultures. Malaysians are a mixture of the local Malay, Thai, Indian, and Chinese. No matter what type of culinary experience you're looking to have, you can find it here. On the hunt for some satay? Your hotel's buffet lunch will be better than you've probably tasted before. Or, head to the streets for some amazing food made right in front of you. Go local and experiment with what you try – don't know what something is? Try it anyway – or better yet, ask someone what it is. Some of the best dishes and foods to try are any of the various curries, roti canai (a thin Indian bread), satay, and perhaps most importantly, laksa (a noodle soup cooked a number of different ways with various ingredients). Of course, you'd be remiss if you didn't try the "King of Fruit," the Durian (though I should warn you, many can't stand the smell...or taste) and delicious Jack Fruit.
Many countries are often perceived as catering to a specific traveler – Bermuda is for the beach-lover, Costa Rica is for the eco-tourist, and so-on. But in Malaysia, you'll find something for everyone. Get the true city experience in KL (what the locals lovingly call Kuala Lumpur), head to Penang for cultural overload – the city is an UNESCO World Heritage Site. Find a different Malaysian cultural experience on the island of Borneo; once home to countless native tribes – some are still active today – just outside of Kuching Sarawak, you can stay in authentic longhouses and learn how tribes like the Iban lived long ago. For those looking for adventure and eco tourism, Kuching was named the cleanest city in Malaysia, and it shows in their national parks, and one of their prized gems: one of the world's best orang utan sanctuaries (don't call them "orangutangs" in Malaysia). There you can observe the large primates in their natural surroundings. For those looking for beautiful beaches, venture no further than Langkawi and the 99 islands off the west coast of Malaysia. Crystal clear water, verdant landscapes, and seemingly undiscovered beaches characterize the islands.
Asian countries are known for their incredible hospitality, and it's especially noticeable in Malaysia. Perhaps it's because the country doesn't see as many tourists as other popular destinations, but everyone from a stranger on the street to your hotel's concierge is grateful for your business. They all want to make your experience in their country the best it can be. Not only that, but they want to know your story (where you're from, how long you're staying), if you're having a good time there, and if you plan on returning. Honestly, it felt good to be unashamed of being American in a country.