Accommodation in Malaysia is good value: basic double rooms start at around RM45 (£9/US$14), while mid-range en-suite rooms can go for as little as RM100 (£20/US$32), including breakfast. With a little shopping around, you may well turn up a plush, four-star hotel room for RM250 (£50/US$80).
The cheapest form of accommodation is a dormitory at a hostel, guesthouse or lodge. These generally exist in well-touristed spots, such as Kuala Lumpur, Georgetown, Kota Bharu, Cherating, Kuching, Miri, Kota Kinabalu and Sandakan. At the other end of the scale, luxury hotels offer a level of comfort and style to rank with any in the world. Many mid-range and top-bracket hotels also offer promotional discounts that slash twenty percent or more off the rack rate; either check online or simply ask if you turn up without a reservation. Discounted long-term rates – anything over two weeks – are also often available.
Advance reservations are essential to be sure of securing a budget or mid-range room during major festivals such as Chinese New Year, Hari Raya and Deepavali, or school holidays. Rates remain relatively stable throughout the year, rising slightly during these popular periods.
At the budget end of the market you’ll have to share a bathroom, which in most cases will feature a shower and Western-style toilet. Air conditioning is standard in hotels, and is increasingly common at the budget end of the market. Note that a single room may contain a double bed, while a double can have a double bed, two single beds or even two double beds; a triple will usually have three doubles or a combination of doubles and singles. Baby cots are usually available only in more expensive places.
The mainstay of the travellers’ scene in Malaysia are guesthouses (also sometimes called hostels, B&Bs or backpackers). Located in popular tourist areas, these can range from simple affairs in renovated shophouses to modern multistorey buildings complete with satellite TV, DVD players and internet. Their advantage for travellers on a tight budget is that almost all offer dorm beds, costing anywhere between RM10 and RM30. Basic double rooms are usually available, too, with a fan and possibly a mosquito net at the cheaper end of the market, from RM35 upwards.
In national parks, islands and in resort-style compounds you’ll find accommodation in so-called chalets, ranging from simple A-frame huts to luxury affairs with a veranda, sitting area, TV, minibar, etc. While the cheapest chalets cost the same as a basic double in a guesthouse, at the top end you could pay over RM1000 for a two-night package at the dive resorts off Sabah’s east coast.
Malaysia’s cheapest hotels tend to cater for a local clientele and seldom need to be booked in advance: just go to the next place around the corner if your first choice is full. Rooms are usually divided from one another by thin partitions and contain a washbasin, table and ceiling fan, though never a mosquito net. In the better places you may be treated to polished wooden floors and antique furniture. That said, showers and toilets are often shared and can be pretty basic. Another consideration is the noise level, which as most places are on main streets can be considerable. Note that some of the hotels at the cheaper end of the scale also function as brothels, especially those described using the Malay term rumah persinggahan or rumah tumpangan, or those that allow rooms to be paid for by the hour.
Mid-range hotels, often the only alternative in smaller towns, are rarely better value than a well-kept budget place. The big difference is in the comfort of the mattress – nearly always sprung – and getting your own Western-style, but cramped, bathroom. Prices start at around RM60, for which you can expect air conditioning, en-suite facilities and relatively decent furnishings, as well, sometimes, as a telephone and refrigerator. In these places, too, a genuine distinction is made between single rooms and doubles.
High-end hotels are as comfortable as you might expect, and many have state-of-the-art facilities, including a swimming pool, spa and gym. Some may add a touch of class by incorporating kampung-style architecture, such as saddle-shaped roofs with woodcarving. While rates can be as low as RM200 per night, in popular destinations such as Penang and Kota Kinabalu they can rocket above the RM300 mark, though this is obviously still great value compared to equivalent hotels in Western cities. Many five-star hotels adjust their rates on a daily basis depending on their occupancy level; check websites for the latest rates.
Despite the rural nature of much of Malaysia, there are few official opportunities for camping, perhaps because guesthouses and hotels are so reasonable, and because the heat and humidity, not to mention the generous supply of insects, make camping something only strange foreigners would willingly do. Where there are campsites, typically in nature parks, they are either free to use or charge around RM10 per person per night; facilities are basic and may not be well maintained. A few lodges and camps (at Taman Negara, for example) have sturdy A-frame tents and other equipment for rent, but you generally need to bring all your own gear .
If you go trekking in more remote regions, for example through central Taman Negara National Park in Peninsular Malaysia and parts of the Kelabit Highlands in Sabah, camping is about your only option. Often, visitors find it easier to go on package trips organized by specialist tour operators who will provide tents and equipment, if necessary.
A stay in a longhouse, de rigueur for many travellers visiting Sarawak, offers the chance to experience tribal community life, do a little trekking and try activities such as weaving and using a blowpipe. It used to be that visitors could simply turn up at a longhouse, ask to see the tuai rumah (headman), and be granted a place to stay, paying only for meals and offering some gifts as an additional token of thanks for the community’s hospitality. While some tourists still try to work things like this, for example at longhouses along the Rejang River, these days most longhouse visits are invariably arranged through a tour operator.
More expensive packages put visitors up in their own section of the longhouse, equipped with proper beds and modern washing facilities; meals will be prepared separately rather than shared with the rest of the community. More basic trips generally have you sleeping on mats rather than beds, either in a large communal room or on the veranda, and the main washing facilities may well be the nearest river. For meals the party will be divided up into smaller groups, each of which will eat with a different family.
It can be fantastic to visit a longhouse during the annual Gawai Dayak festival at the start of June and witness traditional celebrations, though don’t expect to get much sleep: the merry-making, generally fuelled by copious consumption of tuak (rice wine), will continue long into the night, and the place may be so crowded that people end up sleeping sardine-fashion in the communal areas.
In certain areas homestay programmes are available, whereby you stay with a Malaysian family, paying for your bed and board. Though facilities are likely to be modest, homestays can be a good way to sample home cooking and culture. Tourist offices can usually furnish a list of local homestays if requested; the main things to ask about are whether a special programme will be laid on for you – not necessarily a good thing if you simply want to be left to relax – and whether your hosts are able to speak English, without which you may find yourself somewhat cut off from them and the community.