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 – Malaysia and the Philippines are no exception.
However the Philippines 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.
Philippines 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 the Philippines is a better choice than Malaysia. The pristine beaches in this country – and the thousands of Filipino islands – are spectacular. We recommend some of our favorite beaches later on in this article. However the problem with the Philippines is that due to its geography, access to the best beaches can be much harder than it is in Malaysia.
In essence, the Philippines is a country with raw natural beauty, but it needs an adventurous traveler to discover it.
Malaysia with it’s 800+ islands also has a stunning coastline, and just like the Philippines, beaches in Malaysia don’t tend to get busy, making them the perfect place to unwind. The public transport infrastructure in Malaysia is very good too, making it an easy destination to get around.
In terms of expenses, the Philippines is a cheaper country than Malaysia in regards to food, alcohol, and accommodation. That’s mainly because Malaysia is a more developed country.
Whilst in regards to crime, tourist areas in both are safe although petty criminals such as pickpockets do exist. However the Philippines does have regions you should avoid, such as Mindanao where kidnapping has occurred. Thailand in contrast, is relatively safe throughout.
Below we look at some of the sights to see in each country and then compare the culture. Spoiler alert – they’re very different!
Philippines or Malaysia: Stunning natural scenery
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.
When it comes to raw natural beauty, the Philippines shines. The geography of this country means traveling takes time – but the reward is worth it. Expect countless world-class beaches, and numerous paradise islands that feel like they exist in their own little world. Many can be reached with the reliable bus and ferry transport system in place – you can see routes and find tickets here.
One of our favorite islands is Boracay which has everything a beach lover needs. This safe destination is one of the most popular tourist spots in the Philippines, but you can still expect a secluded feel. The white sand beaches here are gorgeous – the aptly-named White Beach is one – and the water is warm for swimming. The gently-swaying palm trees that line the coastline make this a true paradise island.
If you want somewhere even more remote, then head to Calaguas Island. The coastline is beautiful, unspoiled, barely developed, and you’re likely to be the only tourist around.
Of course with 7600 islands to choose from, it’s not hard to find a secluded beach here! Many of those islands are also home to teeming underwater life which is perfect for snorkeling.
One of those is the Visayas archipelago, which has some of the most varied sea-life in the region. There’s the possibility to swim with sea turtles at Apo Island, spot whale sharks at Oslob, or even swim alongside massive schools of sardines at Moalboal.
However the Philippines is far more than just coastline and beaches. This country has a lush mountainous interior with excellent opportunities for jungle trekking and wildlife spotting.
While in the Visayas you must visit the Chocolate Hills where over 1200 symmetrical mounds are packed together. It looks otherworldly.
A trip to El Nido is well worth it too, as it will give you the opportunity to trek the giant limestone slabs that jut out of the ocean and into the sky. The hike isn’t easy, but you will be rewarded with panoramic views across the South China Sea.
Malaysia vs Philippines: Experience a different world
Both are culture-packed countries where you’re guaranteed to experience the incredible east.
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.
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!
The Philippines is a country where tradition and culture holds significant sway, and outside of the main urban areas life remains remarkably similar to what it was like decades ago.
To get a jaw-dropping window into rural life in the Philippines, you must visit the rice terraces carved into the stunning Banaue mountains. Sometimes called the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’, it’s no surprise the centuries-old terraces are a UNESCO World Heritage site. They are still farmed to this day, and the little villages that dot the mountains will take you back in time. Stop and speak to the farmers and learn their story – maybe help out for the day – you will never forget it.
This is a religious country and beautiful churches and awe-inspiring temples dot the landscape. One of our favorites is Cebu Taoist Temple. Unlike other nearby temples this site is open to non-worshipers. It’s even possible to have your fortune read by monks that live here.
If you happen to be in the Philippines in January, then you will be lucky enough to experience the country’s biggest festival – Ati–Atihan. This colorful celebration takes place on the island of Panay and is believed to be over 800 years old. Called the ‘mother of all festivals’, expect street food and lots of dancing during parades.
Malaysia or Philippines: A taste of the East
Both countries will provide a treat for your tastebuds!
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.
Filipino food is often forgotten about when it comes to Asian cuisine, with Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese all stars on the global food stage. However this country packs a punch when it comes to delicious dishes.
Adobo is regarded as one of the national dishes, and is a meat or seafood-based meal that is marinated in soy sauce, vinegar, garlic and other herbs.
The Philippines, like its neighbors, also has many different noodle dishes. One of our favorites is Bulalo. This noodle soup is the perfect comfort food, and is made up of slow-cooked beef, onions, and vegetables.
As for something sweet, why not try Buko pie. A buko is a young coconut, and the flesh is used to make a desert that is the Philippines answer to a custard pie. The water of this green coconut is also a popular drink throughout the country.
Philippines vs Malaysia: Which should you choose?
A holiday to either the Philippines 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 raw natural beauty then the Philippines will be a better holiday destination than Malaysia. The Philippines is also cheaper than Malaysia, but 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.