Thailand vs Malaysia: If You Can Only Choose One

Thailand and Malaysia share a border and are two of Southeast Asia’s most popular tourist destinations, but they are still distinctly different. I’d recommend a long visit to both, but if time is an issue, I’d hate to rush either country. There’s just too much to see and do! So if visiting both isn’t going to work out for you, which country should you choose? Well, that depends on you and what you want to get out of it. I’ve broken down some of the main items and highlights, comparing them between the two countries to help make your decision just a bit easier.

Travelers vary when it comes to their favorite types of activities. Some like physical outdoor activities, other enjoy cultural immersion and still others like a resort beach, but most all share one thing in common, a love for food. The plethora of dishes in Southeast Asia can keep a traveler busy all on their own, but which country holds the crown?

The food in Malaysia can’t be simply classified as Malaysian food. Due to the country’s ethnic diversity, Malaysian, Chinese and Indian food together combine to make up the country’s cuisine. Lucky for travelers, this variety, as well as a mixing of elements from each, keeps fresh new tastes on your palate each day. Head for Kota Bharu’s night market to eat the national dish, Nasi Lemak, with your hands. Go to the colonial streets of Penang for the island’s famous fish-based soup, Penang Laksa. Or head to KL’s Little India for a simply yet exceedingly satisfying breakfast of Roti Canai.

So simple. So Good. Thai Food

While Malaysia has a mixture of cuisines, Thailand has one all its own. Thai food is known the world over and is regularly listed among the best in the world. This is, of course, for good reason. Unlike many countries, travelers regularly spend months in Thailand and still aren’t crying for more variety, although tears may come from the spices. Pad Thai, Papaya Salad, Tom Yum, Mango Sticky Rice, Pad See Ew and a reggae colored offering of curry combine to keep thousands of travelers appetites at bay day after day. Not only are the dishes numerous, but the food carts are as well. Every city which hopes to be considered Thai has streets lined with food carts selling all the aforementioned dishes at a dirt cheap prices. It’s a food lovers paradise and claims my vote.
Winner: Thailand

What kind of trip to Southeast Asia would be complete without going outside and tromping around in some of the natural beauty the region has on display? Heck, some people come to the area with the sole purpose in mind, and for good reason. The trekking here can take one’s breath away.

Thailand is the most convenient option. The country’s original and flagship national park, Khao Yai, is just a day’s trip from Bangkok and one can expect a jungle trek to reveal a plethora of wildlife. Wild elephants are the most sought after, but I also saw the craziest, and biggest, bugs of my life. I couldn’t believe they were real. Another short trip to Kanchanaburi, brings travelers to the doorstep of more national parks and some worthwhile waterfalls, which are main cause to the unofficial label of most beautiful province in the country.

Get deep in the jungles of Malaysia

While Thailand’s trekking is convenient, trekking in Malaysia can be more rewarding. It is the real deal. While short treks are definitely an option, Malaysia also caters perfectly for those seeking a hike that will push them to their limits, both physicaly and mentally. Want to see the world’s largest flower, the elusive Rafflesia? We thought so. Head to Sarawak’s Gunung Gading. How about one of the thickest, not to mention THE oldest jungle in the world? Malaysia’s Taman Negara is the spot (watch out for those leeches). Looking for the ultimate challenge? Climbing the 4,000 meter high Mount Kinabalu, a multi-day undertaking, may fit the bill.
Winner: Malaysia

Island Hoping/Diving
When people day dream about visiting Southeast Asia, the most common image that comes to mind is a tropical, palm fringed beach nestled against aqua green waters teaming with Nemo fish. Snorkeling, diving, and working on a tan are top of the list attractions in the region.

Thailand or Malaysia? Both have water this warm and clear

Once again, Thailand has it all. The sheer number of islands to choose from provide something for every type of traveler. Big, flashy resorts occupy some of the best white sand beaches, while small backpacker havens have chosen other spots to settle in and flourish. Some islands are busy, loud and party all night. Others are remote, untouched by tourism and still rely on roosters for alarm clocks. Those looking to learn to dive look no further than Koh Tao, handing on PADI certifications on the daily. More experienced divers looking for a life experience can take up residence on a live aboard and head out on the Andaman Sea and the pristine Mergui Archipelago.

Whatever Thai islands boast, Malaysia matches them punch for punch. The east coast of Peninsular Malaysia is also island fringed. Tourism has found many of them leaving a trail of development in its wake, but there are still islands seemingly lost out there where fishing boats make up just about all the traffic (Palau Kapas… shhh) . Big budget resorts stand proud on Palau Tioman while the young and budget conscience head to the Perhentian islands. Dive centers also populate each island offering a chance to explore below the surface for as little as $20 a dive (wha???), but if one is looking for absolute world-class diving and has the budget to back it up, there is arguably no better spot in the world than Borneo’s Sipadan Island. Literally, no better spot.
Winner: Draw

You have one month to blow in Southeast Asia and you have one main objective, to have a good time. For you, a good time can only mean one thing. You want to party. More specifically, you want to party your face off. Dance in loud clubs and on beaches until the sun rises.

Malaysia holds a few gems in this regard. Obviously, the international mega city, Kuala Lumpur, has its share of happening bars and clubs, but the prices may get to you. Being an Islamic country, alcohol is heavily taxed. Oddly, a beer will run you more than a cocktail in many bars. Luckily, the island of Langkawi is tax free and offers a good time at a fraction of the cost. Unfortunately, its only one island in a large country.

All the buckets you can handle on Phi Phi

Of our two countries this is truly a no contest. Lets be real. Thailand wins hands down. For starters, Bangkok’s nightlife offers the full range of choices. From the uber-classy and pricey Skybar looking over the whole city, to the clubbing backpacker mecca of Khao San Road, to Patpong’s darker secrets, Bangkok carters to all. After a few days in the city, head to the tropical waters of the Thai islands. Koh Phangan attracts thousands each month to the infamous fire-fueled all-night Full Moon Party. Next in popularity is the beautiful Koh Phi Phi islands that even Leonardo DeCaprio couldn’t resist. Lose your sandals (I swear I didn’t do that :/) as you dance the night away only to wake up hungover just in time to discover a booze cruise on your agenda. Partying is a staple for the Land of Smiles.
Winner: Thailand

First time travelers and backpackers regularly head to Southeast Asia because of the ease of travel. It’s a developing region, but its safe, cheap and transportation is usually not too difficult to arrange. Solo travelers are also extremely common.

Neither country can be described as difficult to navigate, but a few differences make Malaysia slightly easier, by however small a margin. First off, Malaysia is actually more developed than Thailand. Cars are more common than motorbikes and shopping malls, fast food restaurants and modern grocery stores can be found outside the major cities. Even official taxis are nearly everywhere replacing the tuk tuks and songthaews in Thailand. Lastly, nearly all Malaysians speak some level of English and many speak it extremely well. This could be due to the already diverse language scene of an ethnically diverse country, the fact that many of their TV programs are aired in English, or because their written language uses a Latin alphabet. That last reason also helps travelers with navigation and helps with remembering and pronouncing foreign words, something impossible in regards to the Thai written language.
Winner: Malaysia (by a hair)

Southeast Asia is known as a budget destination. Travelers can live like kings for cheap compared to Western standards or can live on pennies and travel for months on end. Both Thailand and Malaysia fit this bill. More touristic locations will require a larger budget while spots off the beaten trail will present surprisingly minuscule costs of living. There is, however, one major difference which causes many fellow travelers to view Malaysia as a much more expensive destination, the price of alcohol. As mentioned previously, Malaysia taxes the sale of alcohol heavily and drinks are more comparable to western prices than in most other parts of the region. Something to keep in mind as many enjoy the occasional beer while traveling away from home and those that enjoy the frequent beer will surely take notice.
Winner: Draw (Thailand if alcohol is a large part of your budget)

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19 thoughts on “Thailand vs Malaysia: If You Can Only Choose One

  1. Fantastic article! Very well written. Just thought I’d tell you. thanks for the info. We’re in Thailand now and heading to Malaysia in a few days. Following you on Facebook now. glad I found your site.

  2. I would certainly agree on winners of eating and convenience. A great and unbias comparison between two lovely SEA nation. I just notice you haven’t visited Philippines yet, 7107 islands awaits you there 🙂

  3. Hey! I’m currently choosing Malaysia or Thailand for summer and I loved this article! I have been looking up diving packages in Malaysia and I can’t seem to find any that are relatively cheap (around $300 like Thailand) online. What prices should I expect? and if I do go to Malaysia should I just get my accommodation once I arrive at Perhentian island and the diving course? Or should I try to book online? I’m looking for something super budget friendly. Thanks!

  4. Malaysia is often considered the best country in Asia for food, the sheer diversity and stuff, although Thailand is really good, I would say Malaysia by a whisker personally. Want authentic Indian? Malaysia has it all. There’s Chinese, Malay and distinctly Malaysian food that is a fusion of all. Malaysia also has all the western chains that you count want and other Asian cuisines.

    For traditional culture I’d say Thailand is more interesting, although Malay culture is interesting. I enjoy the architecture of Thailand, the ornate wats etc. Malaysia has a mix of mostly colonial, modern, some traditional and Chinese and Indian (temples).

    For nature, Malaysia wins easily. Most of Thailand’s rainforest is long gone, while Malaysia still retains quite a bit, from Taman Negara NP on the peninsula mainland to Borneo, which to me is probably the best place in SEA for nature that is accessible. You have rainforests, beaches, coral reefs (certainly more pristine and less crowded than most of Thailand’s), and mountains like Kinabalu that are far higher than anything you’ll find in Thailand.

    Another thing in Malaysia’s favour is that it’s wealthier, infrastructure throughout the country is good (unlike Thailand outside BKK). Although in Thailand’s favour if you want a more ‘authentic’ rustic Asian experience the countryside there is more traditional, although some Malay kampongs are pretty traditional still.

    Both are definitely worth a visit, not an either/or thing. They’re so different you have to see. Both are among the best countries in SEA for a holiday, imo, all things considered. Malaysia is a better introduction to Asia, while I feel Thailand is more exotic.

    • Thanks for the input John. I agree with you on almost every point. I love Malaysian food’s diversity but in my book, it can’t top Thailand and its abundant street vendors. Cheers!

  5. The differences between Thailand and Malaysia are huge. – Thai people are mainly Buddhists – Malaysians are mainly Muslim – Thailand has nicer beaches – Malaysia is more modern and westernised I’ve lived in both countries

  6. Hello

    My wife and i have been struggling with this decision for a couple weeks now. Were thinking one of the following:
    A. Bkk + hua hin or ko samet
    B. Phuket + surroundings
    C. KL + surroundings

    Couldnt find a site subjectively comparing cost, conveyance, food, beach, jungle etc etc. You missed architecture, but one good soul covered it in the comments. Now if youd be so kind as to tell me what to expect from the locals. Ive been to bkk half a dozen times. The locals are all smiles, polite and helpful. Ive been told that same thai hospitality is absent in phuket. And i know nothing of kl. Is there anything you could share with me?

    On a completely unrelated topic, youre well travelled, but how have you bypassed vietnam?

    Keep blogging. This is super stuff. Thank you!


    • Sorry for the delay. Your comment somehow slipped by me. I can’t speak to the people in Phuket, but I can talk about KL. From my memory, I don’t recall a strong tendency toward either extreme. You’re correct, BKK is all smiles and KL locals don’t stand out as friendly on quite that same level, however, that doesn’t mean they are on the opposite extreme. I do think they are a little less in awe of foreigners as they are a slightly more developed country, making them less likely to drop everything and help you out, but also not minding your presence either.

  7. Hi Phil, great post. It’s good to have a clear idea of the similarities and differences of countries in Southeast Asia.
    I set up which compares culture, food, weather, nightlife and much more of each country.
    Check it out. Would be great to hear your feedback.
    Thanks, Carina

  8. Hello! My boyfriend and I are deciding between Thailand and Malaysia for next December. I have a few questions regarding costs:
    1- hostal or hotel prices, which one is cheaper?
    2- when does the high season start?
    3- I’ve heard that Thailand has many thieves or people who try to rip you off, is it true? Is malaysia better or worse in that sense?
    4- we are going for three months, 1month and a half of it is financed by an ong (only food money and where we stay). How much money would you recommend, with no crazy luxuries included?
    5- we are chilean, is there a discriminatory problem in either of these countries?

    • Thailand has cheaper accommodations by far. High season starts usually in right in early December.

      3) I have lived in both places as a resident and do not believe what you hear about Thailand. It’s rubbish. Stay away from the touristy areas and the locals are as honest as the day is long….For example it is almost impossible to tip the maid in your room, if you leave money on the pillow, she will fold it neatly and put it on your desk…most Thais are very honest.

      4) you can easily live on $15 US dollars a day in Bangkok but maybe $25 per day in Kuala Lumpur. Out side of the cities it is cheaper in both places. There is no issue with discrimination…but in Thailand they value respect over anything else, if you respect their customs and act politely they will love you. Malaysia more difficult answer because it is a tri-segregated society socially…harder to meet locals.

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