Southeast Asia is one of those regions of the world everyone wants to visit at some point in their lifetime. The vibrant cultures, incredible food, breathtaking landscape and exotic wildlife sum up the lure of this part of the globe – and Malaysia and Indonesia are no exception.
However Indonesia and Malaysia are very different, so making the right decision about which to visit for your once-in-a-lifetime holiday is important. That’s why we’re here to help! Having visited both destinations we compare them below, showing you their differences, similarities and what to expect in each.
Indonesia or Malaysia: Which should you choose?
Both countries have beautiful landscapes, mountains, jungles and waterfalls to explore, so are great destinations for a sunseeker that’s also looking for some adventure.
However if beaches are your main priority, then Indonesia is a better choice than Malaysia. The white sand beaches in this country are better than Malaysian ones, and with over 14,000 islands, Indonesia is an island-hopping paradise. We recommend some of our favorite beaches later on in this article. Indonesia is also home to the world-famous island destination of Bali.
Malaysia with it’s 800+ islands also has a stunning coastline, and just like Indonesia, beaches in Malaysia don’t tend to get busy, making them the perfect place to unwind. Malaysia is also smaller than Indonesia and the public transport infrastructure is very good, making it a much easier destination to get around than Indonesia.
Both countries have spectacular landscapes away from the coastline too, as well as jaw-dropping wildlife. In fact Malaysia and Indonesia both share a border on the island of Borneo which is arguably one of the best places for wildlife in the world! There you can see elephants, tigers, leopards, orangutang and many other species.
In terms of expenses, Indonesia is a cheaper country than Malaysia when it comes to accommodation, eating out, and excursions. The exception to that would be Bali, where prices tend to be more expensive .
Below we look at some of the sights to see in each country and then compare the culture. Spoiler alert – they’re very different!
Indonesia or Malaysia: Stunning natural scenery
Indonesia’s stunning coral reefs and sandy beaches give way to a forested volcano-sculpted inland. It’s the perfect place to sunbathe, discover exotic wildlife, and go jungle trekking.
If you want to stick with sand but avoid the crowds, Nusa Dua is a little-known beach in Bali that has miles of golden coastline, and is perfect for swimming, sunbathing and kayaking. In fact head to Bali’s north coast for great diving, but the south coast for superb surfing.
Staying in Bali, you have to visit some of the island’s spectacular waterfalls! One of our favorites, Sekumpul Waterfalls, is in the mountainous north. Known as being the most beautiful waterfall on the island, take the Wanagiri Hidden Hills road to this lush rainforest swimming spot that has lots of little hiking trails around it.
For the more adventurous traveler, scuba diving around Indonesia can also be a remarkable experience with a vast variety of wildlife on show.
The Bunaken National Marine Park, in the Bay of Manado, is a great spot to see tuna, sharks, sea snakes, and swim alongside manta rays and turtles!
Going even more remote, head to the breathtaking Gili islands. This group of three tiny islands are ringed by stunning turquoise sea and white sandy beaches. It’s our favourite place to swim and snorkel throughout Indonesia.
There’s also an underwater sculpture made up of 48 human figures in a circle. This sculpture was build by Jason deCaires Taylor, a famous underwater sculptor, with the aim of rejuvenating the coral life at Gili Meno. Coral has now attached itself to the sculpture to create a stunningly haunting view.
Staying outside of the main tourist areas of Indonesia, head to one of the most significant islands in the country for wildlife. That’s Komodo Island, where you can find the famous Komodo Dragons.
These beautiful scaly creatures are the largest lizards in the world, some growing to about the size of an alligator. They carry venom capable of killing humans, and can hunt everything, from other lizards to buffaloes to each other.
If you’re a fan of the hairy animal variety, the island of Sumatra has you covered with its majestic orangutan. These human like orange-haired primates are some of the most incredible animals on Earth, and share 96.4% of our DNA. In fact we’ve written about Indonesia’s stunning wildlife before – see here!
For the best beaches in Malaysia, one of our favorite spots is the Perhentian Islands. Although hotels have started to spring up in this region, it remains largely unspoiled. Expect soft white sand beaches, warm water for swimming, and swaying palm trees. It’s calm, quiet, and a perfect place to unwind from the stress of everyday life.
For somewhere even more remote, but with some of the best turquoise water in Malaysia, head to the little island of Rawa. There are no roads on this island making it a real secluded paradise. Our top tip is to rent a kayak and circle the island’s coastline – it’s surrounded by coral making it a great place to spot colorful reef fish.
Away from the coastline Malaysia has vast regions of wild mountainous rainforest – perfect for hiking, wildlife spotting, and jungle trekking. Adventurous travelers should have a go at climbing the nation’s highest peak, Mount Kinabalu, which stands at 4095 meters. Located in Borneo, you’ll have to pay a fee to climb the mountain (around 200 USD) but that pays for your accommodation over 2/3 nights, a guide, meals, and the permit to hike this World Heritage Site.
Staying in Borneo, a visit to Gunung Mulu National Park will expose you to some of the world’s most fascinating – but also rare – animals. This protected rainforest is packed with flora and fauna, and a trip down the jungle rivers will give you a chance to spot species like monkeys and porcupines.
A trip to northeastern Borneo and you may witness the rare endangered pygmy elephant. Whilst if you cross over into Indonesian Borneo you can visit Tanjung Puting National Park – home to majestic orangutans.
Indonesia vs Malaysia: Experience a different world
Both are culture-packed countries where you’re guaranteed to experience the incredible east.
Malaysia, whilst a majority Muslim country, is relatively liberal. Therefore bathing suits and discreet drinking is allowed on public beaches. However drinking in front of mosques, for example, would be quite disrespectful.
Although Malaysian cities like Kuala Lumpur also have decent bars and entertainment, a night out in Malaysia for the majority of people tends to involve a cup of milky tea and some sweet treats!
In contrast, the Indonesian island of Bali tends to have a more lively nightlife scene that is catered towards tourists. So if you’re looking for adventure past midnight, this island may be the better choice.
Indonesia is a land of many islands, but also many temples – you can combine both at Tanah Lot! This rock formation off the coast of Bali houses an ancient pilgrimage site called Pura Tanah Lot. Visit at high tide and you will experience waves crashing off the mystic temple – it’s quite a sight.
In fact the majority Hindu island of Bali has a plethora of stunning temples. From exotic beachside sanctuarys, to houses of worship hidden deep in the jungle interior.
Go temple hopping around the island for a cultural experience, and a way to see Bali in its full glory. Tirta Empul Temple – with its holy water that you can bathe in which is said to clean you of your sins – is an unforgettable experience.
Rice has been cultivated on Bali for generations, and the gorgeous rice paddies that rise up into the clouds across the island are as iconic as they are important. Head to Tegalalang to see some of the most beautiful tropical rice terraces on the planet. Speak to the friendly locals in the villages about their life and work when there.
For a bustling shopping experience head to Jalan Malioboro in Yogyakarta. During the day this street is perfect to pick up souvenirs at the small stalls that pop up each day. But this street also comes alive in a different way at night, with street musicians, performers, and many open-air restaurants to try out.
If you’re looking for a very cultural experience then visiting Maimun Palace in Northern Sumatra is a must. Serving as a museum, the building itself is a trip back in time too. There’s often traditional music performances here, while you can rent out traditional costumes for photos as well!
Malaysia is a multi-religious and multi-ethnic country, although 60% of the population are practicing Muslims.
A large minority of Malaysians are Hindu, and a trip to Batu Caves combines Malaysia’s rugged beauty with its religious side. Situated just outside the capital of Kuala Lumpur, this huge network of limestone caves have been turned into Hindu temples and are now an important pilgrimage site.
For something a little more contemporary, the Genting Highlands is a hill-resort built 1,800 meters above sea level on Mount Ulu Kali. This colorful and eccentric resort can be reached by cable car, and has several large casinos to enjoy. It seems in a strange and quirky world of its own, and is definitely worth a visit.
Another hill town – and one with a longer history – is Cameron Highlands which was formally used as a retreat for the British during the colonial period. The production of tea was a major economic factor during colonization, and Boh Plantation – which you can visit – still exists from that time.
Indonesia or Malaysia: A taste of the East
Both countries will provide a treat for your tastebuds!
Indonesian cuisine is a melting pot of different influences, and typically food varies from region to region within the country.
One dish you can get throughout is Bakso – which is a moreish noodle soup containing meatballs. Expect to see this delicacy sold on street carts up and down the country.
Another popular dish is pecel lele – fried catfish. The fish is prepared in a simple manner usually rubbed with salt and a spice or two, then fried. It’s a popular evening snack.
In Bali the food is pork and chicken dominated. Order lawar, a dish that is made up of coconut, garlic, chili, and either chicken or pork meat and blood.
Another traditional meaty dish is Bebek betutu, which is duck cooked with coconut inside banana leaves.
Malaysian food is a rising star and beginning to appear around the world, with dishes like Satay now found in the U.S., UK, and other nations. These tasty skewers of meat are seasoned with a variety of spices and usually accompanied with a peanut sauce.
One of the most popular foods in Malaysia is Rendang. This spicy meat dish (usually beef or chicken) is made by slow-cooking the meat along with coconut milk, chili and spices. The result is exceptionally rich and tender.
A beloved Malaysian dessert – and a great one on hot days – is Ais kacang. Made from red beans, palm seeds, sweet corn, peanuts and shaved ice (an eclectic mix!), this multi-colored treat will cool you down on a hot summer day.
Indonesia vs Malaysia: Which should you choose?
A holiday to either Indonesia or Malaysia is going to be an unforgettable experience with great food, scenery and culture. But both countries provide different vacations.
If you’re looking for the best beaches and a world-famous tourist destination like Bali, then Indonesia will be a better holiday destination than Malaysia. Indonesia is also cheaper than Malaysia, but as a vast country, it can be difficult to travel around.
Malaysia, on the other hand, has some lovely beaches, great cuisine, and a cheap and easy transport system for getting around the country. That, coupled with the incredible wildlife watching opportunities, makes Malaysia a great holiday choice too.