How To Choose Between Visiting Indonesia Or Malaysia

Indonesia. Coast with palms as a background from top view. Turquoise water background from drone. Summer seascape from air. Travel - image
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Southeast Asia is one of the most exotic destinations in the world. It’s no wonder why backpackers flock to the ‘Hippy Trail’ and ‘Silk Road’ routes. This part of the world is alive with vibrant cultures, tasty food, insane landscapes that will leave you breathless, and fantastic Asian nature for adventures in the great outdoors. Both Indonesia and Malaysia are no exception; they each offer an adventure of a lifetime in their own unique ways.

But how do you choose between Indonesia or Malaysia?

There are many crossovers and similarities between the two, but there are plenty of differences as well. We’ve spent many a sunset in each of these incredible destinations, discovering the quirks and smirks behind them both. Here is your ultimate comparison guide between Indonesia and Malaysia, dedicated to helping you choose between these two Southeast Asia gems. So which is it for you? Indonesia or Malaysia?

Indonesia or Malaysia: The Overall Vibe

Roofs in Pura Besakih Temple in Bali Island, Indonesia.
Photo by Igor_Tichonow from Envato Elements

Southeast Asia shares a laid-back and easy-going overall vibe across most of the region. Both Indonesia and Malaysia have a slower pace to life when compared to the Western world, with the iconic “island time” depending on where you end up in each country. So it is safe to say, both are worth visiting for the cultural experiences and (hopefully) relaxing vibes.

Bali is ranked the number 1 tourist destination in 2021, above the likes of Phuket, Amsterdam, and London. This small island in Indonesia is one of the biggest attractions for tourists, however, it does have a unique vibe to other Indonesian destinations. That being said, Indo is generally extremely welcoming to tourists and the friendly locals are more than willing to share their beautiful country.

Malaysians are equally welcoming in tourist hubs, but they don’t quite match the unique charm and warmth of the Indonesians.

Both countries are predominantly Muslim, though Indonesia does have a variety of religions across individual islands. The Malay’s tend to be stricter in their beliefs and social expectations. That being said, you should always be respectful of the nation’s cultures and customs that you are visiting.

Kuala Lumpur is Malaysia’s capital city and has a whole ream of things to offer. Jakarta is the Indonesian counterpart and has slightly fewer things to do for the average tourist.

Winner: Indonesia – the welcoming nature and overall vibe of the Indonesian people is difficult to beat

Indonesia or Malaysia: Nature and Landscapes

Farmer at tea plantation in Malaysia
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Indonesia and Malaysia are both hot, tropical countries with a similar humid climate. Both have a diverse nature and landscape consisting of coastal regions, islands, mountainous interiors, rice terraces, and jungles. However, Indonesia takes the title of the most amount of islands with over 17,000 – Malaysia only has 878 islands. So as you can imagine, the coastal landscape in Indonesia is incredible.

Both have more to offer than coastal paradises with swaying palm trees and warm waters. The landscapes of Malaysia and Indonesia have similarities, in the fact they have tropical rainforests, but are also vastly different.

The Indonesian landscape has been carved out by volcanoes, both active and dormant. Jungles dominate many of the islands and are teeming with weird and wonderful animals. But it is here that Malaysia steals the show. The mountainous rainforests offer world-class trekking and incredible wildlife spotting.

Borneo

Borneo is an interesting part of the world. It is split between 3 countries: Indonesia, Malaysia, and the small sultanate of Brunei. The Gunung Mulu National Park is home to several rare species, packed full of fascinating flora and fauna. On the Malaysian side, you can catch a glimpse of the rare and endangered pygmy elephant. Go to the Indonesian part of Borneo and discover the majestic orangutan in the wild.

Winner: Malaysia – it is a hard call to make, but Malaysia’s diversity of the landscape just takes the win

Indonesia or Malaysia: Food

Assam Laksa (Noddle in Tangy Fish Gravy) is a Special Malaysian Popular Food
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Food is one of the most important aspects of vacation destination decision-making. Malaysian food culture and Indonesian cuisine have plenty of crossovers with some key differences to put them against each other.

Both places use full-flavor spices, rice as a staple, and fresh fish among other meats. Expect to find satay, rendang, and the controversial durian across both countries. Indonesia and Malaysia share a community-style of cooking in either street food or local warungs; you can go to local eateries that serve in a buffet style and charge low prices.

Tourist hotspots across the two countries have an incredible range of restaurants and cuisines. Canggu in Bali is full of vegan-friendly and trendy gastronomies. Kuala Lumpur likewise has a lot to offer, being the capital of Malaysia, serving delicious food on every corner. Malaysia’s cuisine is more diverse and influenced by the multicultural population; you’ll notice elements of Chinese, Indian, and Thai cooking throughout.

So, what are the differences between the two cuisines?

  1. Malaysia has more Indian influence throughout the local dishes, more Indian restaurants in the main cities, and they often eat roti canai (an Indian fried bread).
  2. Indonesian sambal is more hardcore than the sweeter Malaysian version. Indo’s like their spice to be fiery and bold. However, there is plenty of variety of sambal available in Indonesia to suit everyone’s taste.
  3. There are more soups in Indonesia. Think soto ayam and bakso.

Winner: Malaysia – it’s a hard decision, but Malaysia wins because of the diversity. That doesn’t mean we don’t love a post-surf Nasi Goreng in Bali!

Indonesia or Malaysia: Beaches

Indonesian people jumping together on the beach
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It’s no secret that Indonesia’s coast is incredible. There are sandy beaches ranging in color, from volcanic black to white gold and dusty pink paradises. Around the islands are rich and vibrant coral reefs teeming with life; the Komodo National Park just off Flores has some of the most diverse and healthy reefs on the planet, as well as the famous Komodo dragons on the land.

Indonesia’s beaches are also world-famous within the surf community. Swell wraps around the archipelago and blesses the shorelines with some of the best waves in the world. From Bali’s playground to the Nias monster waves, Indo is a surfers paradise as well, as a divers dream.

Malaysia also has incredible beaches and coastlines, and most of them are remote, creating that picturesque image we all have of the tropics of swaying palm trees. Surf is a no-go, but diving and snorkeling on the Malay reefs is an experience of a lifetime.

Here are some of the most noteworthy beaches you have to visit:

IndonesiaMalaysia
Kling King, Nusa PenidaPerhentian Islands
Pink Beach, Komodo National ParkBatu Ferringhi, George Town
Nusa Dua, BaliMersing, Malay Peninsula
Air Manis, SumatraPantai Cenang, Langkawi

Winner: Indonesia – there are just so many beaches across the thousands of Indonesian islands

Indonesia or Malaysia: Things To Do

sunrise at ijen volcano, java, indonesia
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Besides surfing and scuba diving, a trip to Southeast Asia has a lot to offer. If you love experiencing the great outdoors then you’re in the right place. From jungle trekking to volcano hiking, iconic skyscrapers to sprawling cities, Malaysia and Indonesia have it all.

Move away from Bali and you will discover a raw and untainted side to Indonesia. Discovering the natural beauty of surrounding islands is mainly what Indonesia has to offer. Exploring exotic jungles, finding hidden waterfalls, and haggling at local markets are some of the most popular things to do in Indo. You can also learn about the religion by paying respect to temples or visit turtle rehabilitation centers.

Volcano hikes are super cool things to do when visiting Indonesia. There is the ever popular Mt. Batur in Bali that is relatively easy to climb. For more of a challenge, head to either Mt. Ijen in East Java or Mt. Rinjani in Lombok.

Most tourists travel from island to island, experiencing the diverse cultures and flavors when visiting Indonesia. Malaysia is much the same but is often underrated when compared to Indo. Kuala Lumpur is a popular tourist destination in its own right. There is loads to do here, including: the Petronas Towers, the Batu Caves, and the botanical gardens. Head to the more rural areas of Malayasia to visit National Parks, orangutan sancutaries, and colonial architecture.

Winner: Indonesia – the Indonesian volcanoes and waterfalls steal the show

Indonesia or Malaysia: Hotels

Portrait of young beautiful Asian woman enjoying the view of the city from the balcony
Photo by amazingmikael from Envato Elements

One of the main highlights of traveling through Southeast Asia is being able to afford to stay like royalty while you’re out there. From high-rise city hotels to beachfront resorts, private villas to boutique hostels, Indonesia and Malaysia offer a fantastic range of hotels and accommodations for travelers. Standards across both countries are high and you can expect daily housekeeping in most places.

Generally speaking, Indonesia is cheaper for accommodation than Malaysia. Whether you are after luxurious hotels or are traveling more on a budget, you will be able to find somewhere to suit your needs in Indonesia. Many of the guesthouses and hotels include breakfast in the room rate which adds more value to your stay. Just be warned, many islands use saltwater for amenity facilities.

Hotels are beginning to appear in Malaysia’s rural areas, making trips out here more feasible. Within the cities, you can expect higher prices for a fairly good standard of accommodation.

Overall, there are twice the amount of hotel choices for Indonesia on booking.com as there are for Malaysia. This is for a simple reason that Indonesia receives a greater number of tourists.

Winner: Indonesia – across the Indonesian islands there is so much choice for where to stay, all at a good price

Indonesia or Malaysia: Getting Around

Boat taxi on the tropical beach. Perhetian islands, Malaysia
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The lack of transport and infrastructure only adds to the charm of traveling through Southeast Asia. However, that being said, getting around Malaysia is significantly easier than around Indonesia. There is far less water to navigate for starters.

To hop from island to island in Indo is an adventure, but boats and ferries can be unreliable with last-minute cancellations and delays, not to mention the motion sickness aspect. Buses across Indonesia do exist but are notorious for the difficulty of use. And again, you can expect delays, cancellations, and even seat-sharing with chickens.

Whereas, Malaysia offers more reliable bus services and even a train to get across the country. The airports are larger with more options and routes. Generally speaking, traveling around Malaysia is just easier and a whole lot less stressful than in Indonesia.

Winner: Malaysia – for ease of getting around the country, Malaysia takes this one

Indonesia or Malaysia: Price

An Indonesian handing over 3,000 IDR to another local
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Traveling through Asia on a shoestring budget is a rite of passage for travelers and backpackers. You can stay and eat like a king or queen, without breaking the bank, or completely slum it and extend your travels to months if wanted. Both Indonesia and Malaysia are considered cheap places to visit.

The main cities are slightly more expensive, like Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta, but are still cheap in the grand scheme of things. So, which is the cheapest destination?

IndonesiaMalaysia
$51Average daily cost (pp)$71
$27Accommodation for 1 pax/night$39
$6.58Transport$11
$13Food (3 meals/day)$15
$8.60Activities and entertainment$19
$4.32Alcohol$9.82
$1.05Water (/day)$0.85

Winner: Indonesia – overall Indonesia is the most budget-friendly destination

Decision Making: Malaysia vs. Indonesia

Indonesian flag waving on top of Padar Island, Komodo National Park
Photo by Garakta-Studio from Envato Elements

It is safe to assume that you will have a fantastic time in both Malaysia and Indonesia, regardless of which destination you choose. Yet, if we were pushed to make a decision, we would have to say that Indonesia takes the mantel of the better place to visit. With budget-friendly prices, an abundance of hotel choices, and breathtaking beaches and landscapes, Indonesia is sure to steal a piece of your heart.

If you are wanting the best beaches and good-time vibes, then Indonesia has to be your choice. However, this vast country can be challenging to travel around and see all of the sights. If you are looking for an easier place to see more attractions then perhaps Malaysia is more for you.

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Hi! I'm Abigail, a surfer, traveller, and nature lover. I'm from the UK but have been able to call Bali home for several years. I've backpacked across Australia on a shoestring budget, explored European coastlines, and taken in the sights across the pond and down into South America. My travel wishlist keeps growing the more I explore our perfect planet!