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When building your Southeast Asia itinerary, making the decision to see Thailand or Malaysia isn’t easy. Both countries have their pros and cons.
I spent multiple months in each – sometimes in exotic, untraveled places and sometimes in the most visited places on earth. Each country brought a vastly different experience as well as education and friends I never expected.
A lot of the experiences I had were repeatable and not just from circumstance, and, let me say, everyone should do their best to put themselves out there in these countries.
Below, I will break down my experiences in each country as well as highlight some key differences in culture and traditions in each. By the end, you should have a better idea of each country and the experience you want to have in each.
First, Thailand, which is probably the most often traveled of the two countries.
Bangkok – the most visited city in the world. Often, visitors don’t spend more than three or four days in this city. When it comes to tourist activities and pretty scenes, there are certainly better places in Thailand.
I spent two months in this city because I loved what I experienced every time I walked out onto the street. To put it lightly, you will never experience a place like Bangkok. It is the city of quirk and the unusual. It is a perfect place to get you acquainted with the differences between Southeast Asia and the western world. You can also visit:
- Chaing Mai
- Koh Samui
- Phi Phi Islands
Next, let’s check out some of Malaysia’s top destinations.
Borneo – I lived six months in Kota Kinabalu of Borneo. It’s not the most amazing city in Malaysia. Matter of fact, I wouldn’t recommend spending more than a few days there. I didn’t stay for six months because I loved the city. I stayed in Sabah (the region of Kota Kinabalu) because of the other-worldly nature that Borneo has.
I highly recommend spending the majority of your time in Borneo out in nature which is what makes the place special. It is the third largest island in the world and filled with adventure. Mountain hiking, jungle trekking, beach chilling, or scuba diving – Borneo offers all of it! Don’t spend your time in the cities of Borneo (although more developed than most of Southeast Asia, it’s not what makes Borneo special). You can also visit:
- Kuala Lumpur
- Perhentian Islands
Thailand vs. Malaysia Tourist Destination Winner: Thailand wins with the most tourist destinations. Whether you prefer city life, beach destinations, island life, or mountainous terrain, both countries have them. However, Thailand has catered to tourists more in each type of destination.
Now, let’s see what both countries have to offer culturally.
Thailand – a Buddhist country. You will experience many temples and even ancient ruins. People are generally friendly, although, they’ve learned to take advantage of tourists when they can due to decades of high tourism.
Malaysia – a conservative Muslim country. Like Communism in Vietnam, Islam has a hold of the culture in most of Malaysia. Borneo is, generally, more open to non-conservative beliefs and thinking. Peninsular Malaysia is very much strict on ideals and beliefs, especially for the locals.
Thailand vs. Malaysia Culture Winner: Malaysia wins here. In Borneo, the culture is so varied and vastly different than peninsular Malaysia.
What to do
The most popular itinerary in each country for travelers:
Thailand – Island Hopping is what gave Thailand its world-renown fame. Millions still come to Thailand to experience the tropical islands and swim in crystal clear, turquoise waters every year.
Malaysia – Nature/ Food. Borneo is one of the most beautiful places in Asia but it is quickly being destroyed for non-renewable resources. Cities in peninsular Malaysia have become known as the foodie capital in Southeast Asia. Both are popular reasons to visit the country.
Thailand vs. Malaysia Things to Do Winner: Malaysia wins when it comes to what to do – as long as you’re a nature lover. Borneo is filled with adventures and peninsular Malaysia has plenty of city life to add to that.
Both countries are often traveled and tourists are (generally) safe if acting with caution.
Thailand vs. Malaysia Safety Winner: Tie
Thailand has the best nightlife of the two countries by far. Part of island hopping in Thailand includes the famed Full Moon parties and otherwise excellent nightlife.
Thailand vs. Malaysia Nightlife Winner: Thailand
If visiting with the intention of staying and working online, Thailand is your best bet. Between the two countries, most expats live in Thailand and it has a better overall internet connection than Malaysia.
Thailand vs. Malaysia Remote Work Winner: Thailand
And the winner is. . .
The majority of people, if traveling to only Malaysia or Thailand, would choose to travel to Thailand. It’s easier to get around and most built with tourists in mind. This is not to say it is better than the other two – just easier.
This article is part of the Southeast Asia Smackdown series. Read the rest below:
Or, explore the complete Country Comparison Series for more showdowns from around the world.
I’ve been traveling full-time for three years, these are the resources that make it happen:
➤ I exclusively use Airbnb for savings and security on long-term stays in furnished apartments.
➤ I use Booking.com for short-term stays in hostels and hotels on weekend trips.
➤ Upwork allowed me to take the leap to travel full-time because they make it so easy to find freelance clients in any field.
➤ The Superstar Blogging Travel Writing Course launched my travel writing career and helped me become a contributor at sites like Cincinnati Refined and International Living, and even get published in the Boston Globe.