When we headed for Southeast Asia earlier this summer, we were completely focused on going to Thailand, and we really had no plans for what we would do once our 60-day visa ran out there. As the time started to approach where we had to leave Thailand, we tossed around various options for where to head next, and Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia seemed like the best choice.

Now, before we went there, the only thing that came to mind when we heard “Malaysia” was Derek Zoolander. However, Malaysia quickly became a favorite spot for our family, to the point where we spent nearly two months in the country between our time in KL and on the island of Penang. Here are 7 things that we found most surprising (and loved!) about traveling to Malaysia:

1 - It's Modern

Our family in front of Kuala Lumpur's iconic Petronas Towers

Our family in front of Kuala Lumpur's iconic Petronas Towers

Malaysia is an incredibly modern country, right on par with any western country that you’ve been to. After coming from very-much-still-in-the-past Thailand, this was actually a huge shock. Malaysia has solid infrastructure with huge highways, public transportation, and ridesharing services like Uber and Grab. 4G cell phone service and fast wifi are readily available, and particularly in Kuala Lumpur, the skyline is filled with towering glass skyscrapers. Also, almost everyone in Malaysia speaks fantastic English (as opposed to Thailand, where it’s very difficult to have even a basic conversation with many locals).

2 - Amazing Food

The food in Malaysia is delicious. I’ve never heard of Malaysian cuisine really being a thing (again, as opposed to how many people rave about, say, Thai food), but once you’re there, you discover that they have wonderful food. Malaysian culture is a mix of three ethnicities - Malay, Chinese, and Indian, so you can find amazing food from all three cultures, as well as plentiful western options if you’re missing food from home. I was amazed by how many American chain restaurants are in Malaysia… I saw Outback, Olive Garden, T.G.I.Fridays, Red Lobster, Pizza Hut, Papa John’s, McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Kenny Roger’s Roasters, Chilis, Krispy Kreme, Starbucks, Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, and Baskin Robbins while we were there.

As far as local food though, there are so many great options, especially in Penang. Penang is known for its street food, and we tried this amazing dessert with green noodles, coconut milk, corn, red beans, and bits of jelly. They also have a spicy seafood soup called Tom Yam that Joshua really enjoyed. We ate several times at a fantastic local Indian restaurant in Penang that had the best cheese naan with chutneys and super-sweet fudge-like candies in flavors like chocolate or pistachio. We also were frequent visitors to a Middle Eastern restaurant in a Penang food court that had scrumptious saffron rice, hummus and pita, kebabs, and a chicken soup that our girls loved.

And in one last and very important comparison with Thailand, the food in Malaysia never once made us sick. Unfortunately, eating out in Thailand (both restaurants and street food) had a tendency to leave us in pain, to the point where Joshua would skip meals or only eat fruit so that he wouldn’t get sick again. Hygiene standards are higher in Malaysia, and we never had a single issue with food poisoning while we were there.

3 - Beautiful Beaches

Our family on Monkey Beach in Penang, Malaysia

Our family on Monkey Beach in Penang, Malaysia

There are beautiful beaches in Malaysia. I’ve never once heard Malaysia promoted as a tourist spot, but it’s another Southeast Asia destination with many great beaches. We originally went to Penang because we wanted to be near a beach, and we really enjoyed our time there. The main beaches in Penang aren’t great for swimming, as the water is too cloudy, but they’re still great for playing in the sand and watching a glorious sunset. We also took a boat to nearby Monkey Beach, which was a picture-perfect beach out of a postcard. And there are a number of other islands that are supposed to have stunning beaches and great dive spots, such as Langkawi, Redang, and Tioman, although we haven’t had a chance to visit them yet.

4 - Fun for Children

Malaysia is a very fun destination for children. In Kuala Lumpur, the area outside of the Petronas Towers is a child’s delight - there’s a huge park with the largest playground I’ve ever seen, as well as a fantastic swimming area that’s very shallow and has stepping stones and waterfalls to keep children entertained. The Suria KLCC mall, next to the park and towers, has a dancing fountain show at night and the wonderful Petrosains science museum inside the mall. In other parts of the city, you’ll find a butterfly park, botanical gardens, aquarium, Upside Down House, and a bridge walkway through the treetop canopy, right in the heart of the city.

In Penang, there’s obviously the beach to entertain children, in addition to plentiful pools at hotels and apartment complexes. If you’re going to be spending a lengthy amount of time in Penang, it’s worth checking into the Hard Rock Hotel’s Stagepass, which allows you to use their pools for a full year. There are three waterslides, fountains to play in, a sandy-bottom pool, and pools of all depths to keep the entire family happy while you swim. Penang also has a wonderful butterfly park, even better than the one in Kuala Lumpur, and a playground at the top of Penang Hill.

We didn’t have a chance to visit the southern part of Malaysia, but if you make it down to Johor Bahru, you can take your children to Malaysia’s Legoland, as well as an amusement park that features Thomas The Train, Hello Kitty, Angelina Ballerina, Bob the Builder, and other beloved children’s characters.

5 - Shopping Extravaganza

Amusement park inside Berjaya Times Square Mall in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Amusement park inside Berjaya Times Square Mall in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Malaysia is teeming with malls, and not just any malls… malls that put to shame most anything I’ve seen in the United States. Kuala Lumpur is filled with gorgeous, over-the-top malls that have every possible luxury store, and the malls in Penang are really nice as well. They’re all at least 3-4 stories tall, with impressive center courts and beautiful design.

Many of the malls have children’s play areas, which cost money in Asia, and some have fun and unique features like an indoor amusement park (complete with a roller coaster that loops upside down!), piano stairs that play different notes for each step, and an outdoor go kart track. Malls also have a grocery store and food court on the bottom floor, no matter how luxurious the rest of the mall is, so that you know you’ll be able to get affordable food and groceries at any mall you visit.

6 - Very Safe

Our family on the beach at sunset in Penang, Malaysia

Our family on the beach at sunset in Penang, Malaysia

We felt very safe in Malaysia. There’s always a small bit of apprehension when you visit a new country, but when we first arrived in Kuala Lumpur, it was actually just the girls and me - Joshua unavoidably had to go back to the U.S. for a few days. So as a woman arriving alone with three little girls to a Muslim country for the first time, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. However, any fears were quickly put at ease - people were very friendly and welcoming, and I felt quite safe walking and exploring the city on our own. We felt the same way in Penang, especially since it’s smaller and quieter and feels even safer than KL. You always need to use common sense when you travel of course

7 - Awesome Christmas Decorations

After spending the month of November in Bali, we returned to Kuala Lumpur, and to my delight, we were surprised by amazing Christmas decorations all over the city. Since Malaysia is a Muslim country, I had pretty much no expectations of seeing anything holiday-related while we were there. However, I was completely surprised to find that there are gorgeous Christmas trees, festive lights, icy fairytale castles, and Santa-themed displays all around, especially at the city's many malls. As it can sometimes be a little hard to travel during Christmastime and be away from everything familiar and beloved about the season, the decorations touched my heart and put a big smile on my face.

And those are 7 of the reasons why we fell in love with Malaysia! It's a lovely country with warm people, and it's a great surprise spot that you should add to your travel bucket list.

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