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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.

 

Bangkok, Thailand

Bangkok, Thailand

 

Tourist Destinations

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
  • Pai
  • Krabi
  • Patthaya
  • Phuket
  • Koh Samui
  • Phi Phi Islands

 

beach in Malaysia

Beach in Malaysia

 

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
  • Ipoh
  • Penang
  • Langkawi
  • Kuching
  • 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.

 

temple in Malaysia

Hidden temple in the jungle of Malaysia

 

Culture

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.

 

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Kuala Lumpur, the capital city of 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.

Want more of the outdoors? Join our new Sustainable Hiking Collective on Facebook to connect with the international hiking community, discover new destinations, join virtual trail cleanups, and take part in monthly sustainability challenges. 

 

Koh Samui, Thailand

Koh Samui, an island in Thailand

 

Safety

Both countries are often traveled and tourists are (generally) safe if acting with caution.

Thailand vs. Malaysia Safety Winner: Tie

 

Nightlife

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

 

Remote Work

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

 

twin towers in Kuala Lampur, Malaysia

The twin towers are the most iconic buildings in Kuala Lumpur

 

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.

Ready to go? Use Skyscanner to book the cheapest flights to your destination and then browse furnished apartments and unique stays on Airbnb or check out the top hotels on Booking.com!

Adam Cheshier is an American writer and travel blogger. Keep up with his travels on his blog at wanderwayer.com or connect with him on Pinterest.

 

This article is part of the Southeast Asia Smackdown series. Read the rest below:

Thailand vs. Vietnam

Cambodia vs. Malaysia

Australia vs. New Zealand

Or, explore the complete Country Comparison Series for more showdowns from around the world.

 

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Thailand vs. Malaysia Pinterest pin

 

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2 Comments

  1. My two cents: Malaysia, hands down better in almost every way.

    Malaysia is cleaner and wealthier than Thailand. Malaysia is highly developed with a better infrastructure and a far more extensive train system. English is widely spoken in Malaysia. Malaysia is more culturally diverse, and tourists will have a more authentic experience there. Malaysia has better food including outstanding Indian and Chinese food. Malaysia is heavily forested and has many superb nature reserves to visit, whereas Thailand is largely deforested. Malaysia offers 90-day visa exemption for most countries, compared to only 30 days in Thailand. Malaysia can even be slightly cheaper than Thailand (most people would probably disagree with this last statement, but it depends on factors).

    By comparison Thais have generally above average English skills for SE Asia, but most won’t be able to converse with you beyond basic business transactions. Thailand is swarming with tourists, many of them obnoxious drunks and pervs who contribute to a bad reputation of foreigners among locals. Thailand offers a much better party atmosphere and is infamous for drinking, sex, and ganja. The negative side of all of this is that the overall experience can be less authentic.

    Where Thailand comes out ahead: Thailand has immaculate Buddhist temples. Thailand has fewer cigarette smokers than Malaysia. Malaysians have terrible smoking etiquette and seem to treat non-smoking signs as mere suggestions.

    Reply
    • Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts! I agree the temples in Thailand are absolutely phenomenal, but I also agree that you will probably have a less authentic experience. The drugs/party/sex scene in Thailand brings in a lot of terrible tourists and makes for a weird vibe in some places in the country.

      Reply

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