So you want to visit Malaysia? Nice choice. It’s a beautiful country. But being equatorial, it does get a little steamy from time to time.
And then there are the monsoon seasons, which run roughly from April to September (the ‘Southwest monsoon’) and October to March (the ‘Northeast monsoon’). You might have spotted the obvious by now: some part of Malaysia is always in monsoon. The country sits in the middle of a swirling tropical vortex. The trick is planning ahead and picking the right part of the country. If you get it right, you’ll find blue skies, warm sand and empty beaches.
Here’s our beginner’s guide for the best time to visit Malaysia.
The short version
There’s a lot of meteorological info in this article, but if you want to cut to the chase, here are the basics.
For those visiting the east coast (Perhentian Islands, Redang Island or Kota Bharu), avoid November through March. Most resorts shut down during this time and the seas are choppy. You want to visit between April and October (June, July and August are usually the busiest months).
If you’re visiting the west coast (Penang, KL, Langkawi etc), avoid April through to October. It’s extremely monsoon-y. You want to visit between December and March, when the skies are clear.
A quick note on Borneo. Just be aware, there’s a chance of rain no matter when you visit; it’s pretty much a giant tropical rainforest. But the dry season runs from March to October. That’s when you’ll have the best chance at spotting orang-utans… as well as other travellers. Divers will get calm seas and amazing visibility in July and August, and the whale sharks tend to visit between March and May.
The east coast
The east coast is Malaysia’s beach playground, a collection of islands and coastal resorts stretching into the South China Sea. From mid-May to the end of June (Malaysia’s school holidays) families and travellers flock to places like Kuantan, Tioman Island, the Perhentian Islands and Kota Bharu. It’s generally drier on this side of the country, and the beaches are your typical sugar-white postcard variety. During summer, a nice breeze rolls off the South China Sea, which helps cut through the humidity. The only time you really want to avoid is November to February, when the Northeast Monsoon sweeps in and closes most of the resorts. Temperatures on the east coast are pretty stable year-round: expect anything between 22°C-32°C during the dry months (73°F to 90°F).
The west coast
When the Northeast Monsoon blasts across the South China Sea, most Malaysians head to the west coast – places like Langkawi, Penang and Pangkor. Here you’re facing the Straits of Malacca, which separate Malaysia from Sumatra. The weather on the west coast can be brilliant, but it is more classically ‘tropical’. Rain can appear even during the dry season, and you want to avoid the Southwest Monsoon, which tends to rage from April to October. If you can, try to visit between December and March. The weather tends to be mild and sunny, and there’s great swimming around Langkawi and Penang. Like the east coast, temperatures should range between 22°C-32°C (73°F to 90°F). If you’re travelling to the Cameron Highlands, try to plan around school holidays and festival seasons (the traffic gets intense on those windy roads); aim for a shoulder month like April or December instead.
Tourism in Borneo pretty much goes into hibernation between December and January. The rains pour down, wildlife disappears, and the waters get very choppy, making it tough for divers. March to October is the official dry season, although you should prepare for the odd spot shower. The jungles are hot and humid year-round, with temperatures around 27°C-32°C and humidity at 80%. You will sweat. A lot. March is a great shoulder month to visit Borneo, especially Sabah – you won’t see too many other travellers. May through to June is perfect for Kota Kinabalu, Gaya Island and Sipidan, although you will get more crowds. Of course, sometimes it pays to plan your Borneo trip around the wildlife. Pick March to October for orangutans, March to May for whale sharks, and June to September for turtles on Lankayan Island.
There are a few other factors to keep in mind with Borneo (as if tracking the multiple monsoons wasn’t enough). Malaysian and Singaporean school holidays will see big, big visitor numbers, particularly along the east coast. These tend to run in March, May, June and August, although you’ll need to check specific dates each year. Public holidays like Hari Raya Puasa and Chinese New Year are great times to visit, but again, they get busy, and some shops and restaurants may be closed. One other thing to note: if you’re visiting the west coast between August and October, you might experience some haze and smoke, particularly on clear blue days. This is caused by slash-and-burn agriculture in Sumatra, across the Malacca Straits. Usually it’s not a big deal, but depending on the winds it can get quite severe.
Feature photo by Laura Farnell.