Located at the heart of Southeast Asia, on the busy aviation corridor between Europe and Australasia, Malaysia enjoys excellent international air links. Of Malaysia’s regional airports, those in Kota Kinabalu, Kuching and Penang have the most useful international connections, albeit chiefly with other cities in East Asia. If you’re flying long-haul to east Malaysia, you may well have to transit in Kuala Lumpur or Singapore.
During the peak seasons for travel to Southeast Asia – the Christmas New Year period, typically from mid-December until early January, and July and August – fares can be up to twice the price at other times of year, though you can often avoid the steepest fares by booking well in advance. Fares also rise at weekends and around major local festivals, such as Islamic holidays and the Chinese New Year. Sample fares given here include taxes and current fuel surcharges.
London Heathrow has daily nonstop flights to KL (with Malaysia Airlines); the flight takes around thirteen hours. Flying with any other airline involves a change of plane in Europe or the Middle East, and possibly an additional stopover elsewhere. If you’re flying from UK regional airports or from Ireland, you’ll have to change planes at London or a hub elsewhere in Europe. The very best fares to KL are around £500/€450 outside high season – though it’s not uncommon to pay twenty percent more.
In most cases the trip from North America, including a stopover, will take at least twenty hours if you fly the transatlantic route from the eastern seaboard, or nineteen hours minimum if you cross the Pacific from the west coast.
The quickest route isn’t always the cheapest: it can sometimes be cheaper to fly westwards from the east coast, stopping off in Northeast Asia en route. Fares start at around US$1100 or Can$1200 for flights from a major US or Canadian airport on either coast.
Plenty of airlines operate to East Asia from major North American cities. If your target is Borneo, it’s worth investigating the possibility of connecting with one of the east Asian airlines – Kota Kinabalu, for example, has flights from Hong Kong operated by Malaysia Airlines and at least one other carrier.
There’s a particularly good range of flights from Australia and New Zealand into Malaysia, plus budget flights from Australia and New Zealand to KL with AirAsia X.
If you’re flying from, say, Perth to KL, fares start at Aus$550 return in low season, while Melbourne to KL will set you back at least Aus$750. Christchurch to KL generally starts at NZ$1300 return on AirAsia X.
The quickest way to reach Malaysia from South Africa is to fly with Singapore Airlines, which offers nonstop flights to Singapore from Johannesburg, with connections from Cape Town; reckon on around ten hours’ flying time. That said, it’s often cheaper to book a ticket that involves changing planes en route, usually in the Middle East. If you’re lucky you may land a fare of around ZAR6000 return, including taxes, though it’s not uncommon to have to pay ZAR1000–2000 more.
Budget airlines make it easy to explore Malaysia as part of a wider trip through Southeast Asia. The most useful no-frills carriers for Malaysia are AirAsia (wwww.airasia.com) and Firefly (wwww.fireflyz.com.my). Though fuel surcharges and taxes do take some of the shine off the fares, prices can still be keen, especially if you book well in advance.
You can, of course, reach Malaysia from their immediate neighbours by means other than flying. There are road connections from Thailand and from Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo), ferries from the Indonesian island of Sumatra and from the southern Philippines, and trains from Thailand. Here is a round-up of the most popular routes.
There are two daily express rail services between Thailand and Malaysia – one between the southern Thai city of Hat Yai and KL, run by the Malaysian rail company KTM (wwww.ktmb.com.my), and the other between Bangkok and the Malaysian west-coast city of Butterworth (close to Penang island), run by State Railway of Thailand (wwww.railway.co.th). The KTM service leaves Hat Yai at 4pm, taking twelve hours to reach KL; the Bangkok train leaves Hualamphong Station at 2.45pm, calling en route at (among others) Hua Hin, Surat Thani, Hat Yai and Alor Star in Kedah, and arriving in Butterworth 24 hours later. Also useful is the Thai rail service from Hat Yai across to Sungai Golok on the east coast of the Kra isthmus, close to the Malaysian border crossing at Rantau Panjang, from where buses run to Kota Bharu.Hat Yai–KL fares start at RM46 in an ordinary seat, rising to RM58 in a lower-berth sleeper.
As regards flights, plenty of services connect Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Thai resort destinations with Malaysian airports . Some are run by the low-cost airlines, while others are provided by Bangkok Airways (wwww.bangkokair.com).
A few scheduled ferry services sail from the most southwesterly Thai town of Satun to the Malaysian west-coast town of Kuala Perlis (30min) and to Pulau Langkawi (1hr 30min). Departing from Thailand by sea for Malaysia, ensure your passport is stamped at the immigration office at the pier to avoid problems with the Malaysian immigration officials when you arrive. Another option is the ferry from the southern Thai town of Ban Taba to the Malaysian town of Pengkalan Kubor, where frequent buses run to Kota Bharu, 20km away. Buses connect Ban Taba with the provincial capital, Narathiwat (1hr 30min).
The easiest road access from Thailand is via Hat Yai, from where buses and shared taxis run regularly to Butterworth (4hr) and nearby Georgetown on Penang island. From the interior Thai town of Betong, there’s a road across the border to the Malaysian town of Keroh, from where Route 67 leads west to meet Route 1 at Sungai Petani; shared taxis serve the route. You can also get a taxi from Ban Taba for the few kilometres south to Kota Bharu.
Plenty of flights, including many operated by the low-cost airlines, connect major airports in Java and Sumatra, plus Bali and Lombok, with Malaysia. As for Kalimantan, AirAsia operates between Balikpapan and KL, and Malaysia Airlines’ subsidiary MASwings (wmaswings.com.my) runs between Pontianak and Kuching, and also between Tarakan and Tawau in southeastern Sabah.
It’s possible to reach Sarawak from Kalimantan on just one road route, through the western border town of Entikong and onwards to Kuching. The bus trip from the western city of Pontianak to Entikong takes seven hours, crossing to the Sarawak border town of Tebedu; stay on the same bus for another three hours to reach Kuching.
As for ferries, a service operates from Medan in northern Sumatra to Penang (4hr), while Dumai, further south, has a daily service to Melaka (2hr), with more sailings from Dumai and Tanjong Balai to Port Klang near KL (3hr). There are also a few services from Bintan and Batam islands in the Riau archipelago (accessible by plane or boat from Sumatra or Jakarta) to Johor Bahru (30min); and a minor ferry crossing from Tanjung Balai to Kukup (45min), just southwest of Johor Bahru. Over in Borneo, daily ferries connect Nunakan in Kalimantan with Tawau in Sabah (1hr).
Despite the proximity of Sabah to the southern Philippines, few transport links connect the two, though a ferry service operates between Zamboanga and Sandakan. As for flights, there are low-cost options from Clark to KL and Kota Kinabalu (both AirAsia). Other connections are provided by full-cost airlines as well as some Philippine budget operators.
Adventure Center US t1800 228 8747, wwww.adventurecenter.com. A good range of packages, mainly focused on east Malaysia.
Allways Dive Expedition Australia t1800 338 239, wwww.allwaysdive.com.au. Dive holidays to the prime dive sites of Sabah.
Asia Classic Tours US t1800 717 7752, wwww.asiaclassictours.com. Malaysia tours, lasting ten days or more, taking in various parts of the country.
Asian Pacific Adventures US t1800 825 1680, wwww.asianpacificadventures.com. A handful of Malaysia packages, dominated by Borneo.
Bestway Tours US & Canada t1800 663 0844, wwww.bestway.com. A handful of cultural tours featuring Malaysia.
Borneo Tour Specialists Australia t07 3221 5777, wwww.borneo.com.au. Small-group, customizable tours of all of Borneo, covering wildlife, trekking and tribal culture.
Deep Discoveries US & Canada t1800 667 5362, wwww.deepdiscoveries.com. Sabah dive packages with optional extensions to wildlife sites on land.
Dive Adventures Australia t1800 222234, wwww.diveadventures.com.au. Sabah and Labuan dive packages.
Eastravel UK t01473 214305, wwww.eastravel.co.uk. A small range of Malaysia trips.
eMalaysiaTravel.com US t618 529 8033, wwww.emalaysiatravel.com. Various Malaysia offerings – KL city breaks, diving off Sabah, Taman Negara trips and so forth.
Emerald Global UK t0207 312 1708, wwww.etours-online.com. A good range of Malaysia packages based in cities or resort.
Explore Worldwide UK t0845 508 3212, wwww.explore.co.uk. Adventure trips to Malaysia.
Explorient US t1800 785 1233, wwww.explorient.com. Short tours, focused on major cities and with a cultural emphasis, which can be combined with one another.
Golden Days in Malaysia UK t0208 893 1781, wwww.goldendays.co.uk. A good range of Malaysia itineraries emphasizing Borneo and the main cities of the Peninsula.
Intrepid Travel US t1800 970 7299; Canada t1866 360 1151; UK t0203 147 7777; Australia t1300 364 512; New Zealand t0800 600 610, wwww.intrepidtravel.com. Several Malaysia offerings, mainly focused on Borneo.
Jade Tours US t212 349 1350; Canada t905 787 2588, wwww.jadetours.com. Borneo and Peninsular Malaysia trips.
Kumuka US & Canada t1800 517 0867; UK t0800 068 8855; Ireland t1800 946843; Australia t1300 667277; New Zealand t0800 440499; South Africa t0800 991 503, wwww.kumuka.com. East Malaysia tours geared to families.
Lee Travel Ireland t021 427 7111, wwww.leetravel.ie. Flights worldwide.
Lee’s Travel UK t0800 811 9888, wwww.leestravel.com. Far Eastern flight deals, including discounted Malaysia Airlines tickets.
Pandaw Cruises US t1800 798 4223, wwww.pandaw.com. Multi-day trips along the Rejang River in Sarawak, in their own luxury boat.
Pentravel South Africa t0860 106264, wwww.pentravel.co.za. Flights deals plus KL, Langkawi and Penang-based holidays.
Peregrine Adventures UK t0845 004 0673; Australia t03 8601 4444, wwww.peregrineadventures.com. Experienced operator with a handful of east Malaysia packages.
Premier Holidays UK t0844 493 7531, wwww.premierholidays.co.uk. Tours of east Malaysia, plus resort-centred holidays in Peninsular Malaysia.
Ramblers Worldwide Holidays UK t01707 331133, wwww.ramblersholidays.co.uk. Walking holidays in Malaysia.
Reef & Rainforest US t1800 794 9767, wwww.reefrainforest.com. Sabah dive packages based in resorts or a liveaboard.
Rex Air UK t020 7439 1898, wwww.rexair.co.uk. Specialist in discounted flights to the Far East, with a few package tours to boot.
Sayang Holidays US t415 986 1293, wwww.sayangholidays.com. City-based Peninsular Malaysia tours, plus Borneo.
STA Travel US t1800 781 4040, wwww.statravel.com; UK t0871 230 0040, wwww.statravel.co.uk; Australia t134 782, wwww.statravel.com.au; New Zealand t0800 474 400, wwww.statravel.co.nz; South Africa t0861 781 781, wwww.statravel.co.za. Worldwide specialists in low-cost flights for students and under-26s; other customers also welcome.
Symbiosis US t1866 7237903; UK t0845 123 2844, wwww.symbiosis-travel.com. Diving, trekking and longhouse stays in various Malaysian locations.
Travel Masters US t512 323 6961, wwww.travel-masters.net. Dive packages at Sipadan and Mabul.
USIT Ireland t01 602 1906, wwww.usit.ie. Student and youth travel.