Geographically close and similar in cultural diversity, choosing whether to visit Malaysia or Indonesia can spark a difficult discussion for even the most experienced of world travellers.
While Malaysia’s sky-high cities and urban adventures typically attract those seeking familiar sightseeing tours and the electric city buzz, Indonesia is better known for idyllic islands hidden in mile-upon-mile of azure waters, lined with footprint-free beaches. Distinct differences can be found in their cuisine, traditions and population too, each playing their own part in making these near neighbours worthy travel locations in their own right.
Based on budget, attractions, food and more, we’ve compiled the ultimate Malaysia vs Indonesia guide to answer your travel destination dilemma.
Malaysia Vs Indonesia: Accommodation
Accommodation in Malaysia is widely diverse and dynamic, with places to stay varying from small but stylish hostels, to swanky five-star hotels located in towering buildings with eccentric commodities. Guesthouses prove most popular with travellers on a budget, often housed in modern multi-storey buildings with basic comforts including bunk beds, televisions and Wi-Fi. Well positioned in hotspots including Kuala Lumpur, Kota Kinabalu and Penang, they’re unbeatable bases for sightseeing, with most popular cultural attractions right on the doorstep and easy-to-access transport around every corner.
On the opposing end of the scale, Malaysia’s bounty of boutique and luxury hotels may be too good to resist; think soaring skyscrapers with views of the Petronas Towers, private islands with miles of unspoilt sand and villas hidden amongst acres of virgin rainforest. Even if it’s only for a night or two, it’s well worth splashing the cash on these heavenly residences that showcase the best of Asian hospitality.
In Indonesia, homestays are a common alternative to the hostels found in Malaysia. Typically, this includes staying in the comfort of an Indonesian home, usually comprised of a carefully crafted structure of bamboo. Although they may not be the most glamourous of getaways, staying with a local family gives you unlimited access to lesser known cultural gems and insider travel secrets — it’s like living with your very own tour guide!
Comparable to Malaysia, the country also has an abundance of luxury boltholes that boast beautiful rooms, wellness centres and palate-pleasing food to spoil the senses. From boutique hideaways in Bali with incredible infinity swimming pools to peaceful eco-friendly lodges in the remote Gili Islands, there are plenty of high-end hotels that equal – and sometimes exceed – the exceptional standards you’d find in more modernized Malaysia.
Malaysia Vs Indonesia: Prices
You can spend significantly different amounts depending on where you choose to go while travelling in Malaysia. The southern half of the Malay Peninsula and the surrounding islands may be more developed, but they actually afford the least in terms of travel costs; easily accessible and hassle-free transportation makes prices much more competitive, meaning you can spend less seeing the sights in areas including Penang, Kuala Lumpur and Malacca.
In comparison, locations in lesser developed Malaysian Borneo can be more expensive. While accommodation won’t cost you a fortune, exploring the incredible natural wonders with diving tours, jungle safaris, relaxing river cruises and the expert assistance of a local tour guide can soon add up; if you’re only here for a short amount of time, it’s well worth paying the price to fully experience the country’s colourful culture.
While the Indonesian currency of Rupiah may make items sound incredibly expensive with approximately 18,000rp to one British Pound, prices of many things are in fact cheaper here than in Indonesia. While eating out at restaurants remains similar in price, alcohol in Indonesia tends to be noticeably cheaper — you’ll only find it served in tourist hotspots though, this is a predominantly Muslim country after all.
Accommodation is also often more affordable, but similarly to Malaysia, you can expect to pay more to stay in more isolated locations like Jakarta and the best beauty spots of Bali.
When planning your budget for Indonesia, you should also take into the account the amount and prices of activities you’re wishing to participate in. Like Malaysia, cultural adventures abound in the area; woodcarving courses, batik painting classes and otherworldly guided treks into the wilderness are only the beginning.
Malaysia Vs Indonesia: Food
Malaysia’s food scene is inspired by a melting pot of cultures; from the Indian-inspired banana leaf to Chinese-style fried noodles, it reflects the multi-ethnic communities who make up the country’s population. A must-try on any trip to southeast Asia is Malaysia’s (unofficial) national dish of nasi lemak. While a different variation of this delicacy can be found at nearly every street food stall, the base features rice cooked in coconut milk, topped with spicy chilli sauce for an unmissable kick to the senses.
Drawing from further cultures’ culinary traditions, other mouthwatering favourites that regularly make it onto the menu include Indian-style flatbread roti canai and the flower-infused nasi kerabu, alongside the globally recognised skewers of satay chicken. A medley of ingredients make every country’s interpretation of satay somewhat different, with the unique flavours that make Malaysia stand out from the crows including turmeric, coriander and lemongrass.
Similarly to Malaysia, street food plays a big part in Indonesia’s cuisine, with popular plates served throughout the day and at night markets including the savoury meatball noodle soup bakso and vegetable salad gado-gado. The country is also inspired by a wide variety of cultures including India and China, but unlike Malaysia, they don’t tend to stray too far from the original recipe. Instead, they infuse every dish with natural produce, herbs, and freshly picked spices to guarantee every mouthful is as delicious as the last.
Rendang is one of Indonesia’s most popular meals sampled by tourists, originally reserved as a foodie favour only for special occasions. Now, this tender beef dish coated in special, gravy-like sauce can be found on most restaurants’ menus, served alongside rice, vegetables, and the unique but unmissable green chilli condiment.
Malaysia Vs Indonesia: Beaches
Hidden away between the two tempting beach destinations of Indonesia and Thailand, Malaysia could be considered southeast Asia’s forgotten paradise when it comes to beaches. With many stretches of shoreline bordered only by wildly green jungle, the sand is unspoilt and the sea is unbelievably blue as far as the eye can see. While the tropical temptation of Langkawi may instantly spring to mind for sun worshippers, beautiful beaches actually span the length of the country’s coasts.
On Terengganu’s Redang Island, Coral Beach is a world-class destination for diving and snorkelling with tropical marine life aplenty, while Kapas Island — just off the coast of Marang — is one of the most peaceful places in Malaysia; featuring few resorts and not the best internet connection, you’re free to relish simple pleasures like beach volleyball, scuba diving and watersports, as well as uninterrupted sun bathing.
In terms of the sheer number of beaches, Indonesia wins this battle hands down. Extraordinary sandy spots adorn every corner of this sprawling archipelago, featuring crystal-clear water teeming with marine life and white sand that’s walked by few travellers every year. Some of the most beautiful shorelines can be found in the Gili Islands, located off the coast of Lombok.
Not only superb for hours of sunbathing in the sea breeze, you can delve beneath the surface at plenty of reputable dive schools or even unwind with an on-the-beach yoga class as the sun slowly sets over the horizon.
Indonesia’s beaches can’t be written about without including the jaw-dropping spectacle of Pink Beach — one of only seven in the world! Hidden away in Komodo National Park, the soft pink coloured sands. Plus, it’s only accessible by private boat or organized tour, meaning it’s rare to find the beach overwhelmingly busy!
Malaysia Vs Indonesia: Attractions
Culturally rich Malaysia manages to strike the perfect balance of old and new when it comes to attractions. While the high-rise cities are packed with gourmet dining and designer shopping, historic towns and villages immerse you in the country’s former life with well-preserved heritage buildings and gorgeous unspoilt scenery.
Kuala Lumpur — the country’s capital — usually proves to be one of Malaysia’s main attractions, home to the 450-metre-high Petronas Twin Towers. These 88 floor-tall buildings boast one of the biggest shopping centres in Malaysia, along with an art gallery and a mind-blowing observation deck.
Away from the city, Malaysia is also home to several UNESCO World Heritage Sites; the impressive karst limestone pinnacles of Gunung Mulu National Park are fascinating, featuring caves mostly unexplored until the 1970s, while Mount Kinabalu is popular with travellers seeking to challenge themselves with a countless number of scenic treks.
Similarly to Malaysia, Indonesia carefully mixes past and present to give travellers a treasure trove diversity of cultures, landscapes and places and explore. The world’s largest archipelago includes active volcanoes, unexplored waters and undeveloped landscapes, meaning you could always be amongst a small minority of discovering somewhere different!
While the bustling streets of Jakarta are crammed with local markets and sellers, Bali’s blissful beaches blend sun, surfing and snorkelling into one picturesque package. However, the ancient temple of Borobudur perhaps surpasses beaches’ peace, best enjoyed in the early morning when the bricks are bathed in sunlight.
No visit to Indonesia would be complete without seeing Borneo’s orangutans; although home to the largest population of these endangered creatures in the world, local sanctuaries now often have to rescue the animals as their natural habitat is sadly destroyed by development.
Malaysia Vs Indonesia: Nightlife
Malaysia has a nightlife like no other and sets itself apart from other destinations of Bali and Thailand. It’s world-class, vibrant and booming nightlife holds a different edge, with its trendy bistros, laid-back lounges and elite clubs.
Unsurprisingly, Kuala Lumpur has an abundance of jaw-dropping rooftop bars, letting you take in the city from a whole different perspective. Located inside the iconic Petronas Towers, Marini’s on 57 is one of the city’s most sought-after haunts with floor-to-ceiling windows showcasing utterly spectacular scenes. However, you can find nightlife in Malaysia at ground level too! In Langkawi, beachfront cocktails, live music and local street performers are regularly included in any ‘night out’.
Set right on the shore of the Andaman Sea, Pantai Cenang’s beach bars are equally adored by travellers and locals — and with incredible fire shows, chilled out conversations and reasonably-priced beers, who could blame them!
While you might assume from the delicate flora and fauna that Indonesia would remain relatively peaceful by night, you’d be wrong. Amongst the country’s 18,000 islands, you’ll find everything from world-class DJs at city clubs to laid-back beach bars with traditional music. Jakarta’s nightlife is enough to make you consider whether New York is really worthy of the title ‘The City That Never Sleeps’; parties usually go on until sunrise, with the sound of everything from 80s and 90s hits to ear-bursting EDM echoing through the streets.
Of course, Bali boasts a bounty of nightlife too! Rooftop bars, theatre shows, full moon parties and beach clubs are all popular places to grab a cocktail or two. However, don’t forget about the magical atmosphere of Bali’s night markets, comprised of traditional stalls selling local food, snacks and souvenirs and offering a new perspective on Indonesia post-sunset.
Malaysia or Indonesia: Where is better?
Colourful and characterful, both Malaysia and Indonesia have so many delights to uncover. Both are budget-friendly, easily accessible and welcoming of tourists, so choosing between these two countries can be a challenge!
Although Malaysia may be less known for tourism than Indonesia, you’ll be surprised by the abundance of gorgeous beaches, gourmet dining and astounding attractions to be enjoyed, and with Kuala Lumpur as its capital, you’re never too far from the buzz of the city.
However, if you’re looking for a true sense of culture, wildlife and local living, Indonesia is hard to beat!