Country Information


Little is known of the early history of Malaysia. The aboriginal Malays, the Orang Asli people, likely came to the land from southwestern China around 10,000 years ago, but little is known of the history of the region until the second century AD.

The Chinese enjoyed a brief period of time ruling Malaysia when Cheng Ho set up Melaka as the center of the region and promised the people protection from the Siamese, who threatened to take over from the north. Melaka grew into a powerful city with the help of the Chinese, which eventually attracted the interest of Europeans. The Portuguese took control in 1511, followed by the Dutch in 1641 and the British in 1795.

As is the case with most colonial holdings, Malaysia had its own form of local government in addition to the control of the British crown. However, inland tribes pushed for control as well, and in 1838, a British explorer named James Brooke came to the region. When he found that the Brunei were defending themselves against a rebellion of some of these inland tribes, Brooke took it upon himself to appoint himself Raja of Sarawak, part of Malaysia, and he squashed the rebellion. The dynasty of the Brooke line of Rajas lasted for 100 years. However, after World War II, the third successor to the dynasty relinquished control of Sarawak to the British government. During this time, the British allowed Chinese and Indian immigrants to come to the land, and this changed the culture and racial makeup of the land.

Independence came not long after World War II. In 1957, Malaya, one of the areas of what is now Malaysia, achieved independence for the first time. The Communists saw the infant country as one ripe for the picking, and an uprising created internal turmoil as the newly formed government tried to ward off the influence of the Communists in its rank. At the same time, Indonesia, one of Malaya’s neighbors, began to try to take over. Malaya needed help.

Help came in 1963 when the northern Borneo states of Sarawak and Sabah decided to join forces with Malaya and, along with Singapore, created Malaysia. This led to a period of racial tension, beginning in 1969. The primary struggle during this period was between the Malays and the Chinese who were living in the land. While hundreds of people were killed, the government of the infant country was finally able to restore order.

The 1970s was a period of economic struggle for the people of Malaysia. Most of the Malays were below the poverty line, which led to the New Economic Policy of 1971. The goal of this policy was to create a series of plans that would incorporate more Malays in the professional class, while also promoting a stronger agricultural front. These programs were largely successful, paving the way for economic growth later.

When Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad came to power, the country began to thrive economically. In fact, they saw a growth of 8 percent per year from 1981 until 1997. Sadly, a currency crisis in Thailand in 1997 created a recession throughout Southeast Asia, and Malaysia was not exempt from its effects. Slowly, as the country entered the 21st century, they were able to dig themselves out of this decline and create a more stable economy, with tourism as a central focus.

Unique Characteristics

  • Malaysia is an ethnically diverse country. In Sabah and Sarawak alone there are over 60 sub-ethic groups.
  • Islam is the religion of the majority of the people of Malaysia. Buddhism, Christianity and Hinduism follow behind.
  • While Malay is the official language of Malaysia, many of the people also speak English, Cantonese and Mandarin quite well.
  • It is the custom in Malaysia to remove one’s shoes before entering a home. This may also occur at some traditional shops, so watch what others are doing when you visit.

Fun Facts

  • You could park a Boeing 747-200 inside the Sarawak Chamber in Gunung Mulu National Park in Sarawak. This is considered the largest cave chamber in the world.
  • Malaysia has over 65,000 km of highway, which is greater than the circumference of the earth.
  • The Malaysian rainforests are home to the world’s largest flower, the Rafflesia.
  • There are over 200 islands off the shores of Malaysia.
  • Tourism is responsible for much of the gross domestic product in Malaysia. Over 20 million people visit Malaysia every year.
  • The temperature in Malaysia rarely dips below 75, even at night, and is typically quite warm during the day.

Top Destinations

  • Sipadan Island – Considered by many to be the top diving destination in the world, this is a must-see location if you want to scuba dive while visiting Malaysia.
  • Taman Negara National Park – Climb rope ladders while exploring the world’s oldest rainforest.
  • Petronas Twin Towers – The largest twin towers in the world, these are located in Kuala Lumpur, the country’s capital city.
  • Pulau Langkawi – This group of islands is known for its beautiful beaches and luxury resorts.
  • Kato Bharu – While visiting this colorful city, be sure to see traditional kite and shadow puppeteers.
  • Melaka – This historic city is an excellent place to sample Baba-Nonya cuisine and some of the country’s historic architecture.
  • Kuching – This is one of the most historically important towns in Sarawak.
  • Kinabalu National Park – Revel in the views from the top of Mount Kinabalu, and then relax at Poring Hot Springs when you return to the base.
  • Gunung Mulu National Park – The pinnacles and massive caves make this one of the most naturally unique places in Malaysia.

How to Get Cash

  • You can change your money at banks and airports, but these areas should only be used in a pinch because of the high fees.
  • Licensed moneychangers in major retail centers, like shopping malls, tend to have the best rates to change your money. Keep in mind that the rates on the board may be negotiable if you are changing a large amount, so ask for the best quote if you have a large amount to change.
  • Credit cards are accepted in most major stores, restaurants and hotels. Be careful in less well known areas, as skimming can occur.
  • You can find ATMs in most larger areas. If you plan to go to an island or on a jungle trek, get your cash before you leave.
  • If you face a money emergency, you can find Western Union locations throughout the major Malaysian cities, but be prepared for high fees for the money transfer service.

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